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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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I was having lunch in a cafe this summer and went round the back to find the toilet. There were two doors facing me, and neither of them had any signs saying ‘Male’ or ‘Female’, or those stylised figures in trousers or skirts. Instead, fixed to one door, with a huge rusty nail driven through the toe, was a 4 inch stiletto; and on the other, with another nail, a black boot of the Doc Martin variety, looking as if it had spent a few years on a building site. I avoided the stiletto.

rεsılıεnt hεtεromogεnεous rhızomε . . by jef safi.

Prehistoric? Sexist? Certainly. But it embodied a cultural truth that Nicolas Sarkozy has been tiptoeing round most of his life: that women who want to be tall are allowed to show it, but men who want to be tall must pretend that they are not trying. At about 5 feet 6 inches, Sarkozy is well known for his ‘stacked’ shoes (you can’t say ‘high heeled’), and for the specially imported platforms he stands on when he speaks from a podium. But then the following story broke and made it worse:

A worker chosen to stand on the podium behind the French president at a visit to a Normandy factory last week has admitted in a Belgian TV report that she was chosen because her small stature wouldn’t make the president look short. The report on the Belgian state channel RTBF said a group of specially selected workers of smaller stature had been bussed in to stand behind the president at the Faurecia auto parts company.

“I am told you have been chosen because of your size, is this true?” the Belgian journalist asked one woman worker on the podium. “Yes,” she replied. “You must not be bigger than the president?” the journalist continued. “That’s right,” the woman said.

 

lilliput by kristinamay.The ‘sin’, for which he is being punished so mercilessly, is not wanting to be tall – it is wanting it so much that he is prepared to make others short (as it were). He, or his team, has crossed a cultural line. We all want to be beautiful, or strong, or tall, or thin, or whatever will make us more attractive to others. And not many people make absolutely no effort to care for their appearance (although it’s possible…). It’s not vain to want to present yourself in the best possible light, to want to fit in; even the desire to impress can go hand in hand with a certain humility of heart – if it is with the right motivations.

But there are two things you can’t do: try too hard, or do it at the expense of others. This is what turns an endearing human characteristic – the desire to please and to be attractive in the sight of others – into an unacceptable foible. It doesn’t at all mean that Sarkozy is more vain or insecure than the rest of us, perhaps it just means he is less able to hide it, or dogged enough to run the risk of disclosing it.

It makes one reflect: What are the hundred little things we do each day to fit in, to please, to attract? At least we can be more and more aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. And that awareness might lead to a deeper simplicity and peace, so that we are glad to please others – for good and honest and ordinary reasons – without the desperation that makes us completely dependent on their being pleased.

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THE INTERVIEW by Akbar Simonse.My last post was about why Joe Public would ever want to step in front of a camera. This one, coincidentally, is about why a news camera would ever want to go in search of Joe Public when it could call on any number of experts instead. I’ve just read Edward Docx having a rant (‘If I ruled the world…’) in this month’s Prospect. The online text is subscription only, so let me quote a couple of paragraphs.

He is sick of the way that even serious TV and radio now spends so much time seeking out the opinions of ordinary people. Factual news and informed commentary are now being replaced by ‘feedback’ and comments left by ordinary people who choose to ‘join the debate’.

 

I don’t care what Andy from Cheadle thinks about the Gaza strip, the ice caps, Manchester City or even Cheadle. Nobody cares. Nobody except Andy, and presumably he already knows. When I turn on the radio or the television, or when I open a book or a newspaper, what I want is an expert. I want insightful commentary. I want stylistic elegance. I want eloquence. I want uninterrupted expertise.

I’m simply not interested in what the public thinks. Nobody is except pollsters and marketing research agencies (and they only do it for the money). Not even the public is interested in what the public thinks. That’s why they are listening to the radio and not stopping to inquire of one another in the street [p7].

He’s got a point, and we have all been bored at one time or another by the inane opinions of those who happen to be passing by a news team in the street. But he is missing a few points too. Let me list, in increasing order of seriousness, the reasons why we like to listen to the voice of ordinary people speaking about big issues:

(1) We like feeling part of a big conversation; and we would like to stop someone in the street and ask them what they think, but we are too shy to do it. (2) Opinions and ideas need to be embodied and not just discussed. A single ordinary person saying what they believe is more powerful than an expert telling us that a million ordinary people do actually believe this. This is why ‘Joe the Plumber’ (real name: Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) became the focus of one of the Presidential debates between Obama and McCain last year. (3) Passionate personal conviction carries much more weight in today’s culture than objective truth. This goes back to Rousseau, and the whole Romantic movement, but it is part of ordinary life now and not just an elite philosophy. (4) We don’t always trust experts. Partly experience; partly cynicism; partly living in an age of conspiracy theories. (5) The nature of authority has changed. We won’t give someone a hearing just because of their status or title or qualifications. Everyone is equal now.

journalist interviewing people by Kewei SHANG.

How does this change politics, or society, or religion? I’m not sure – but I’m sure it does somehow.

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There is still a mystique about film sets. The idea of being involved in some great project, in the magic of cinema; of seeing the director at work, or of meeting the stars. For most of us, it will never happen. For some, the only way in is to become an extra.

ARD Film set by nicholas macgowan.

Richard Johnson writes here about the reality of life as a ‘supporting artist’. It’s everything you’d expect: lots of waiting around; endless worrying about whether you have the right look; the free lunch; the modest fee; if you are lucky, a smile from one of the cast.

I’ve never been an extra on a film set, but I have been an unwanted intruder on a photo shoot. When my brother and I were little, on family holidays, we would play a game of trying to sneak into other people’s photographs. When we spotted someone about to take a photo, we’d do whatever it took to get in the frame – there was more time in those days, when people struggled with the focus and the light meters.

We had two strategies: You could take a long, sideways run into the far background, and stand there innocently, unobtrusively, as part of the distant scenery. Or you could walk boldly just a few feet behind those being shot, at just the right moment. It you timed it right, you made a big splash; but there was always the risk of moving too soon. 

It was a bit of holiday fun. And perhaps something more. A childlike longing, not for fame, but perhaps for immortality. I used to imagine this photo sitting in a frame on a French coffee table, or a German mantelpiece, years later; our cheeky grins jumping out from the background; our new friends wondering who these strangers were, and what they were doing.

mantelpiece by carbide.

Are these normal thoughts? Maybe not. But I do think there are some simple and almost universal longings at work here in our childish pranks and in the pull of the film set: To be part of something bigger; to have a place in the lives of others; to be remembered; to leave a mark. It’s easy to scoff at the contemporary obsession with fame, and the almost compulsive need there is to connect in all sorts of superficial ways. But maybe we should try to understand more what is at the root of these human needs – the desire to belong.

It makes you appreciate what a revolution the first Christian communities were in those highly stratified ancient societies. Places where anyone, absolutely anyone, could belong. Where no-one was excluded because of race or sex or social status or economic power. Where a new and deeper kind of belonging was possible, because of what Christ had done for everyone, and because of the hope he offered to all.

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Conversion is a fascinating topic. What is it that brings someone to re-think the meaning of their life and take it in a new direction? I don’t mean those mad moments when we do something completely out of character and regret it soon after. Or the radical decisions we make to turn our back on something important, when deep down we know that it really is still important. I mean those rare times when we look at ourselves and at the world and somehow understand them in a completely new way, from a different perspective. Or when we discover a new truth so profound that it forces us to re-cast other truths that have been central to our lives.

Sartre by lord marmalade.

For Sartre, the possibility of conversion was the clearest sign of human freedom. It shows that we are not completely determined by the past, by the forces that have shaped us, or even by the people we have become. It shows that we always have the possibility of making something new of our lives. He delights in:

…these extraordinary and marvellous instants when the prior project collapses into the past in the light of a new project which rises on its ruins and which as yet exists only in outline, in which humiliation, anguish, joy, hope are delicately blended, in which we let go in order to grasp and grasp in order to let go – these have often appeared to furnish the clearest and most moving image of our freedom [Being and Nothingness, 1958 Edition, p476].

Eduardo Verástegui en DAV by HazteOir.org.These thoughts come to mind because Eduardo Verastegui was in the UK last week speaking at a Catholic youth festival and promoting his new film Bella. His is a classic conversion story. He rose to fame in a Mexican boy-band, became a huge TV star, finally broke into Hollywood, and then renounced it all when his English tutor (a committed Catholic) pushed him to think about where his life was going and what it all added up to. He realised that his whole lifestyle was taking him further and further away from God, poured his heart out in confession, and has spent the last seven years doing pro-life work and organising house-building schemes in Mexico. More recently, he has been trying to get back into Hollywood – this time to produce films that will have a positive influence on society, and to realise his dream of setting up a centre for Catholic culture there that would counteract the darker influences of that ambiguous world.

It’s an inspiring story. You can read a short article about his life and conversion here. And if you want more then see the video here - jump ahead to 2.25 for the interview where he tells his story.

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Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.

Grottes de Lascaux II by davidmartinpro.It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.

Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.

Prehistoric Painting by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It's probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]

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I was at a funeral last Thursday of a friend and fellow priest who died tragically in a car crash, Fr Edward Houghton. May he rest in peace; and may his family and all those who mourn him receive comfort and consolation.

So many thoughts remain, most of them too personal for a blog, but one stands out in reflecting on death and how we view it today. In the sermon, Fr Peter Houghton (Fr Ed’s brother) used a simple but powerful phrase: If we are afraid of death then we will be afraid of life. If we cling to life and its joys too powerfully, if we see death only as a threat, then life – paradoxically – will be harder to live. We will be crippled by anxiety and overprotective of all the good things that come to us. But if we are able to acknowledge the horizon of death, and to accept it as a possibility at each moment of our lives, then this will give us a kind of freedom and serenity: to live for the moment – not recklessly, but with gratitude and humility; to take risks – when there are good reasons; to realise that we are not ultimately in control of everything – and that we can learn to trust in something or someone greater; to hope in the possibility of life beyond the grave – not as an escape or a refuge but as a fulfilment of all that we are living through now.

Perhaps the opposite is also true: If we avoid thinking about death then it will be hard to find any peace in this life. If we immerse ourselves so completely in the reality of this present life, it could just be a way of masking an underlying anxiety about where it is heading, and an unresolved fear of losing it, a kind of hidden dread.

It is not easy to face death, but it is much harder (both psychologically and spiritually) spending a lifetime trying to avoid it. How we find the courage to face death, and then to accept it with some kind of serenity, and even to hope that there will be a way beyond death into another kind of life – that is another question…

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The five greatest time travel films of all, err, time: Twelve Monkeys; Terminator 2; Groundhog Day; Les Visiteurs; Planet of the Apes (the original version). Discuss.

TARDIS Bokeh by Capt. Tim.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, sadly, does not even make the top ten. It’s very silly, and very soppy, and full of plot holes. But it does play around much more than most films do with the idea of the traveller [proper English spelling now, as I'm not quoting the title] going back and forward in time to meet himself.

It’s bizarre, and utterly fantastical – but in fact we do it every day. I know that dogs and dolphins have memories, and plan for the future. But we human beings seem to have a distinctive ability to become present to ourselves as we were in the past, and aware of ourselves as we might be in the future. Memory and imagination seem to have a special power for us. We really go back in time and see ourselves as we were, and this allows us to learn, and to regret, and to be grateful – and so many other things. And we really go forward in time and imagine how we could be in the future, and this allows us to be creative and inventive and even visionary.

Out of time by Ross Chapman.

The key, according to Sartre, is not that we can go back or forward in time, it is that in the present we can step back from ourselves – from our own thoughts and feelings and desires – and take a look at them. A look that might be curious, or approving, or critical. This ‘presence-to-self’ is what makes us human, and makes us free, and allows us to time travel.

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I gave a talk about friendship recently to a group of young adults in London. At the beginning I forced them to sit in silence for five minutes and think about their closest friends: how they met, why they stayed in touch, what they like about each other, why the friendship works, what they receive from the friendship, etc. It’s good to reflect like this now and then, it makes you more appreciative and grateful - but don’t do it too often! Even if you are really together in yourself and secure in your relationships, you will start to get paranoid, obsessing about whether you have any true friends, and why the person sitting next to you has twice as many as you do.

Aristotle is still the best place to start. If you have a few minutes, read through the wonderful Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics. [The translation by W.D. Ross is here; scroll to page 127.] And here is his Facebook page, just to prove that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk:

Would you poke Aristotle? by Arbitrary.Marks.

Aristotle says that we have some friends because they are ‘useful’, and others because they are ‘pleasant’. This sounds a bit cold and calculating. But there is a simple truth here, behind the slightly stark language, which I think we all take for granted: That we enter into a friendship because we hope to receive something from it; we want to be with our friends for a reason; namely that there is some mutual benefit (we are ‘useful’ to each other’), or just the sheer joy of being with the other person (we ‘please’ each other). And in fact it would be a bit strange if I told you that I wasn’t better off for seeing you or had no desire to be with you.

‘Perfect friendship’, however, is between good people who seek what is truly good for each other. Yes, there will be much mutual gain, and much joy; but there is this extra element of selflessness, humility, and generosity – wanting what will truly help the other person to be who they are meant to be.

Aristotle draws the logical conclusions from this: It’s hard to be a good friend if you are not a good person yourself. To care for another person, to seek what is best for them, you have to have the inner resources to go beyond your own needs and desires and fears; you have to put them at the centre; you have to see them as someone worthy of love and kindness and not just as someone defined by what they bring to you. You have to see them, in other words, as a person in their own right and not just as a partner in a relationship. This isn’t possible if you are trapped in your own own selfishness. Or to put it more constructively, if you want to have good friends, and to be a good friend to others, then you should try to grow in goodness yourself. I’m not saying I am there yet; but I think Aristotle has the right idea.

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On Not Knowing the Plot

This has happened twice in the last few months: I’ve discovered a new author, devoured one of his or her novels, rushed to read the next one (without knowing anything about it), and then discovered a few pages in that this second novel is in fact a continuation or a re-telling of the first one. The same people I had loved; still breathing. It’s hard to describe the sense of astonishment; the sheer delight of realising that something so precious and personal – the world of the first book and all that it meant to me – was still continuing. The reason any of this was possible was because, almost on a whim, I decided not to read the back cover before I began.

Our Escape by Felipe Morin.

It has renewed my determination to shield myself from all knowledge of any plot. On my estimation this is how it works: The back cover of a novel typically gives you about 20% of the plot - it takes you just a few steps in; a book review gives you about 40% – the reviewer wants to prove that he or she has read more than the back cover; a film review gives you roughly 60% of the storyline; while a two minute trailer at the cinema will give you 80% to 90% of the forthcoming film in miniature – saving only the final twist for the two hour film itself.

For years now I have tried to avoid the trailers in a cinema. It’s difficult. If only they showed them before and not after the adverts. I close my eyes of course. And if the sonorous voice-over is too revealing I resort to humming loudly with my fingers in my ears. Don’t ask what they think of me.

Anyway. I have realised anew the thrill of not knowing the plot. The joy of turning a page and discovering what I didn’t know, of seeing a story unfold before my eyes. Isn’t this what authors want? I’ve realised that 20% is too much. And I have made another resolution: never again to read the back covers of novels.

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Silenсe by bu5h.

There is a beautiful article here by Susan Hill about the human need for silence. It’s not just another complaint about the busyness of life and the ubiquity of noise – although she is obviously disturbed by the fact that musak has crept into public libraries, doctors’ waiting rooms, and art galleries. It’s more about how children need to be educated, gently, into appreciating silence, and how we are failing to provide that education. Here are a few lines:

But we have also betrayed them by confiscating their silence and failing to reveal the richness that may be found within the context of “a great quiet”… When we arrive in a place of profound quiet, we “come to” and find something of ourselves that we did not realise we had lost, an attentiveness, a renewed awareness of our own innermost thoughts and sensations, as well as a great calm… Silence is a rich and fertile soil in which many things grow and flourish, not least an awareness of everything outside oneself and apart from oneself, as well, paradoxically, as everything within… Our children are too rarely given that opportunity or taught that the contrast between noise and quietness, like the parallel one between being in company and being alone, is vital to the growth and maturity of the individual.

As a priest working in a seminary I tend to take for granted the rhythm of study and prayer and silence that is built into each day; above all the period of 45 minutes between morning prayer and breakfast that is set aside for silent prayer and meditation. Even then, with the chapel facing the main road and a major hospital round the corner, it’s hard to escape the racket of buses, sirens and helicopters.

Penderecki by selva.

It was only on retreat this spring that I realised how much I missed real silence – the kind that meets you like a physical presence, and holds you, and takes you beyond; that creates a kind of natural humility, an anticipation, even a sense of awe.

A friend of mine with young children used to put them down to nap each afternoon. As they got older, without reflecting on it very much, she kept the nap time – even when they weren’t napping. It was a time of enforced silence after lunch, from about 2 to 4, when they could do anything they wanted (within reason…) as long as they did not disturb the silence. It was a real education. They’d play games, make things, explore in the garden, mope around, read as they got older. Learning to live with themselves. Then, around 4pm, the noise began…

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