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Archive for March, 2010

There’s a beautiful meditation about time, busyness and the difficulty of living in the present moment at The Invisible Province.

Time by Robbert van der Steeg.

The piece is partly a review of Eva Hoffman’s book Time. But Fr Martin Boland frames this with his own reflections:

We can become so focussed on busyness and speed that we begin to lose a proper sense of ourselves. Individuals can feel that their lives are “spinning out of control” or worse, are about to “break down”. The common response to the question, “How are you?”, has become “I’m busy.” We define ourselves in terms of frenetic activity. At the same time, other aspects and dimensions of our life (family, friendship, the social and the spiritual) are eroded by the constant pressures on our time. “We are money rich, but time poor,” as someone put it to me the other day.

He quotes Hoffman on what we feel about the pressures of time here in Britain:

On more familiar ground, Leon Kreitzman in The 24 Hour Society, a study of time patterns in Britain published in 1999, finds that “A large proportion of the British population believe that they are overworked, and that life is out of control.” Few, however, choose to, or can afford to, work less. Rather, as Peter Cochrane, then head of research as British Telecom pithily notes, the contemporary work conditions have created a new class divide within society: between “those who spend a lot of time trying to save money”, and “those who spend a lot of money trying to save time.”

Busy Subterranean Passage - せわしない地下道 by W2 a-w-f-i-l.

And the post finishes with this reflection about the present moment and the importance of waiting:

One of the dangers of living under the unforgiving eye of the clock is that we risk losing the faculty of concentrated contemplation. In our haste, reality becomes a blur and we stop seeing the interior mystery of the present moment. Activism prevents the sublime contours of people and things being slowly revealed to us in their own time and at their own rhythm. Living at high-speed, make acts of reverence almost impossible, partly because, in a secular age, there are few things that can command such contemplation and respect. The prospect of waiting for the auspicious moment and living with the tension of incompleteness has become anathema to many people. Instead, we bypass natural gestation periods, and force things (work, relationships, ideas, “spirituality”) into a premature birth and then wonder why they don’t answer our true longings. We substitute the twitter soundbite for deep thinking; the ticked box for an action done with care and attention; the slick meditation centre for the wisdom of a fourth century monk living in the Egyptian desert:

Unless there is a still centre in the middle of the storm
Unless a person in the midst of all their activities
preserves a secret room in their heart where they stand alone before God
Unless we do all this we will lose all sense of spiritual direction
and be torn to pieces.

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[UPDATED VERSION BELOW WITH FULLER LIST OF UK SCREENINGS - posted at 6 April 2010]

In a previous post I wrote about the film No Greater Love, a documentary about the Carmelite sisters in Notting Hill. Here are the details about its cinematic release next month. Do go and see it if you get the chance. See this note from the producer:

I am writing to tell you about a film I have produced called No Greater Love. After 10 years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unrestricted access to the closed Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in London’s Notting Hill. The film gives a unique insight into a world of prayer and contemplation away from the materialism of contemporary society and explores what it means to live a life of faith. Critics have said about the film: “Courageous, compelling, and deeply moving” (**** Empire). And  “This is a beautiful, informative and inspiring study of a way of life defiantly at odds with the glitzy priorities and frenetic pace of the outside world.” Edinburgh Film Festival

No Greater Love
will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on April 9th 2010 and will be available on DVD in the summer.  Many of the screenings will be followed by a Q & A with the Director Michael Whyte. There follows a list of screening dates and venues (unfortunately screening times are not confirmed until 4 or 5 days before),  which are also available on our website: http://www.nogreaterlove.co.uk  For further information please phone Soda Pictures Tel: 020 7377 1407.

London Screening Times and Information
There will be a screening at the Renoir Cinema, The Brunswick, London, WC1N 1AW, on Monday 12th April at 6.05pm followed by a Q & A with the Director Michael Whyte. You can book tickets via the Renoir’s website: http://www.curzoncinemas.com/box_office/book_tickets/dlydkq
or by phoning: 0871 703 3991  

No Greater Love  will also screen from 9th April for a week of matinées, time to be confirmed, at the Gate Cinema, Notting Hill Gate, London. There will be a Q & A with the director on 10th April.   To book tickets or for further information regarding screening times please phone the Gate Cinema 0871 704 2058

Other London Screenings:
9th April + Q & A at Lexi Cinema, Kensal Rise, London tel: 0871 7042069
13th April plus Q & A’s at Rich Mix Cinema, Bethnal Green, London E.1. Tel:  020 7613 7498
And Genesis Cinema, Mile End Road, London E1 tel: 020 7780 2000
16th April + Q & A at HMV Curzon, Wimbledon, London
16th May + Q & A Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London,

Other screenings in the UK:
9th April & 7th May at the Cameo, Edinburgh tel: 0871 704 2052
14th April + Q & A at the Nottingham Broadway Tel: 0115 952 6611
19th April + Q & A at the Bristol Watershed Tel: 0117 927 5100
21st April + Q & A at the Cornerhouse, Manchester Tel: 0161 200 1500
23rd April at the Filmhouse Edinburgh tel: 0131 228 2688
26th April at the Glasgow Film Theatre, Tel: 0141 332 6535
30th April at the Little Theatre, Bath, Tel: 01225466 822
30th April at the Phoenix Leicester Tel: 0116 2422800
1st May at the Belmont, Aberdeen Tel: 01224 643 498
16th May at the Queens Film Theatre, Belfast, Tel: 028 9024 4857
16th May + Q & A at Norwich Cinema City tel: 0871 704 2053
18th May at Stamford Arts Centre Tel: 01780 753 458
23rd May at Exeter Picturehouse Tel: 01392 285 960
24th May at Dukes Lancaster Tel: 01524 598 501
25th May + Q & A at Chapter Cardiff Tel: 029 2031 1050
26th May + Q & A at Oxford Phoenix Tel 0871 704 2062

Thank you for your support and help. Kind regards, Janine Marmot
Hot Property Films Ltd
http://www.nogreaterlove.co.uk  

No Greater Love wins Audience Award for Best Feature Film at Berlin Britspotting Film Festival,

No Greater Love has screened at the following Festivals:

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the absent presence by rummenigge.

Tilda Swinton in The Absent Present

We had a good discussion in class this week about human identity. I was pushing Sartre’s line that identity is fluid and open-ended. He accepts that there is a great deal of ‘facticity’ about every life, that in once sense we have an ‘essence’. But he emphasises our ability to go beyond this and re-make ourselves, often in ways that can’t be predicted. We always make these life-choices in the context of who we have become, but this context does not completely determine us.

Some of the students disagreed. They thought I was downplaying the elements of continuity: the fact that a human being is always the same person, that there is an underlying core of human identity that can’t be changed at a whim.

I half-agreed. There is a physiological continuity, and (usually, but not always) some continuity of memory and experience. And from a Christian philosophical perspective I’d want to talk about the spiritual unity of the person constituted by the soul. But it is striking how many of the elements that in ordinary conversation we use as markers of identity can be changed: name, job, vocation, marital status, nationality, etc. I wasn’t arguing that it is always good to reshape your present identity rather than making a renewed commitment to it, simply that it is often possible. Another word for all this is ‘conversion’.

I came across these words this afternoon from a recent interview with Tilda Swinton:

I think that the simple question of identity is probably the subject that interests me most often when looking for stories about people’s experiences. It always intrigues me that there could be any doubt about the inevitable mutability of human identity: that people encourage themselves to pick a shape of existence and stick to it, come what may, ad infinitum. It’s always occurred to me since I was very young that change is inevitable and that evolution depends upon it. I think that being resistant to one’s inexorable mutations, let alone one’s ability to live simultaneously multifaceted lines, is a serious and sad mistake. [Curzon No.19, p28]

Sartre wouldn’t agree that these mutations are ‘inexorable’, because this suggests that even the changes are in fact pre-determined.

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Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, then the Archbishop of San Salvador.

Romero commemoration March 2010 by speakingoffaith.

Romero commemoration in San Salvador, 20 March 2010

Archbishop Vincent Nichols celebrated a Mass in his honour in Westminster Cathedral, and spoke these words.

We are now familiar with the heroic stand taken by Archbishop Romero. He was determined to follow a clear path. Week by week, in a way that riveted attention, he spoke the truth of how things were. He named all those who, in the course of the week, had been murdered by agents of the government. He made sure that they were not forgotten, nor discarded as worthless as their killers wanted. He worked to alleviate the suffering of the poorest, making resources available, using his time to be with them. He worked to improve their prospects, encouraging the church congregations to see that the Gospel has to be lived in action, actions aimed at the integral human development, of which we speak today.

This was his programme, a programme he followed with courage in the extreme and difficult circumstances which were the fruit of systematic exploitation and which led, a short time after his death, to the outbreak of a twelve year long civil war. This was a brave path which drew both criticism and support.

At the heart of that stand was Oscar Romero’s repudiation of violence. And it was his brave direct appeal to members of the army and the police to refuse orders to kill which, as we know, provoked his own murder on 24 March 1980 in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence while actually celebrating Mass.

In his final homily, Archbishop Romero said: ‘Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies….The harvest comes because of the grain that dies…We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.’ And he was not afraid to pay the price.

Today, as we give thanks to God for this remarkable witness, what do we learn for ourselves? Our circumstances in this country are not cast in such extreme conflicts. We are thankful for our tradition of democratic politics and the rule of law by which we handle the exercise of power. Yet there are many places in the world where this is not so and we keep in our prayers all who suffer through the misuse of power and the domination of heartless and oppressive self-interest. Indeed we are committed, through actions which reflect our Gospel commitment, to bring assistance to the huge number of poor and deprived people in the world, working in partnerships with many others of good will.

But here, in our circumstances, what do we learn? Perhaps most of all we can be inspired by Oscar Romero’s courage to speak the truth of the human reality that is before our eyes. This is a fundamental commitment in service of the Gospel. But it is always costly. We know how easily events are manipulated, how ‘facts’ are distorted to fit a predetermined narrative, often one that is fashioned to serve another purpose, whether of a political or an economic nature. We know how, in the Church too, we can be tempted to hide distressing failure and we can recognise the cost of doing so. Yet the first step towards a freedom of action is the courage to name and acknowledge the truth, whether that is true effects of the financial crisis, the truth of the failures in the care of the vulnerable elderly,  the real effects of sexual permissiveness, or the real impact of social breakdown and of poverty in this country. Then the inspiration of the Gospel will produce in us the desire to act in the service of this truth and in support of those most in need.

In all of this we must take care, as Oscar Romero did, that our words and actions, expressed in the name of the Church, do not spring from any political ideology but from a commitment to the dignity of every person and from a commitment to the common good, a good which excludes no-one from its embrace. This was the framework of his thought.

And Archbishop Nichols quotes these words of Archbishop Romero, spoken on the day before he was killed:

How easy it is to denounce structural injustice, institutionalised violence, social sin! And it is true, this sin is everywhere, but where are the roots of this social sin? In the heart of every human being. Present-day society is a sort of anonymous world in which no one is willing to admit guilt, and everyone is responsible. We are all sinners, and we have all contributed to this massive crime and violence in our country. Salvation begins with the human person, with human dignity, with saving every person from sin. And in this Lent this is God’s call: Be converted!

There are links to various writings about Romero and other resources here. And many of his homilies in English translation here.

CIMG0012.JPG by alison.mckellar.

The text from the photo above includes these translations of the quotations painted on the wall:

Here, the entrance of the community building serves as a reminder and commemoration of the work and life of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

“The church cannot remain silent in the face of injustice without becoming an accessory to it.” – Monseñor Romero, July 24th 1977

“We either offer our service to the lives of Salvadorans or we are complicit in their death.” February 2, 1980

“I look not for my own personal gain but for the common good of my people.” January 14, 1979

“A pastor must be where the suffering is.” October 30, 1977

“From this moment on, I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador… May my blood be a seed of liberty.” March, 1980

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I’ve been reading about the theme of solidarity in Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. It’s one of those ideas that is hard to disagree with: yes, we are all brothers and sisters who belong to one human family, etc. But he raises the uncomfortable question: who gets to belong?

Solidarity Mural by Atelier Teee.

Pope Benedict notes that a society can decide that a human life under certain circumstances is no longer worthy of respect. He’s writing about abortion, the eugenic selection of embryos, and euthanasia. But it’s important to see that he’s not just making a pro-life point. His argument is much bigger. It’s that as soon as you exclude a certain category of human beings from the class of those who are allowed to participate in human solidarity, then you undermine the foundations of all solidarity.

If you exclude the unborn, the terminally ill, or the disabled, you don’t just exclude the unborn, the terminally ill, or the disabled — you make all true human solidarity impossible, because what you have left is a form of belonging that is based upon power and exclusion. So even those who think they belong (the lucky ones who are still on the inside) — their belonging is no longer an opening out to others, releasing them from solitude and isolation, it is a closing in on themselves, a corruption.

This is how Pope Benedict puts it:

[In the pro-euthanasia mindset there is a] damaging assertion of control over life that under certain circumstances is deemed no longer worth living. Underlying these scenarios are cultural viewpoints that deny human dignity. These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life. Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development? How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human? What is astonishing is the arbitrary and selective determination of what to put forward today as worthy of respect. Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. [#75]

There is a particular challenge for socially and politically engaged Catholics here: It’s not possible to separate pro-life issues from questions of social justice and development. They are both, at heart, the single issue of human solidarity. If you introduce an arbitrary definition of what allows you to be included in the category of ‘human being’, in effect you make it impossible for anyone to hold onto their inherent human dignity, because everyone is conscious or half conscious that they too may one day be excluded.

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I learnt a new word on the radio this morning: psychogeography. Even after a bit of research, I’m still not sure what it means: anything to do with the way we respond on a non-rational level to the urban environment.

Someone from the Ramblers’ Association presented it as a way of walking the streets around you with more attentiveness – with the interest and focus you would bring to a visit to an art exhibition. Noticing things; appreciating things. This seems beautiful and harmless.

London by cod_gabriel.

But on the internet there are stranger theories about ‘drifting’ (letting yourself be guided by the ‘psychic’ or psychological contours of the geography) and ‘algorithmic wandering’ (walking to a formula, e.g. “Take the first street left, then the second right, then the second right” – then repeat this sequence until the time runs out).

I’m uneasy about the New Age aspects of this, but attracted by the invitation to go somewhere without going anywhere. And I like the idea of a programmed/random exploration. It’s the same fascination of being a taxi driver – the mix of uncertainty and fate, that you never know where you will be going, even though your destination is determined beforehand. Or is it?

Here is one summary of the meaning of psychogeography:

The word psychogeography was coined by the situationist poet Guy Debord around 1950. It describes the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.

The sudden change of ambience in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places – these phenomena all fall into the field of psychogeography.

One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: "drifting"], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

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Last night I went to the launch of the Safer Streets Drama Project. It’s a programme for schools, youth groups and young offender institutions run by TenTen Theatre.

The heart of the programme is a play called Sam’s Story. You see a boy lying in a pool of blood. Sam stands over him, a knife in his hand, wondering how he had got to this place. And then we look back on the months leading up to this tragedy, and try to understand how a 15 year old boy with a good heart and a loving mum ends up in prison for murder. It was heartbreaking to watch: the pressures put upon him, the choices he made and perhaps couldn’t not make, the unravelling of his relationship with his mum…

You can see a trailer for the project here.

It wasn’t just the power of the drama that impressed me, it was seeing how drama could be used to open up issues for young people in the follow-up sessions, and actually help them to reshape their lives and their choices. Drama, and the reflection that goes with it, can be a powerful tool for conversion.

Colleen Prendergast, who plays Sam’s mum, writes about her experiences of being involved in the workshops:

Ten Ten are setting up in a school hall. Children drift in to buy breakfast, peering curiously round the half open door of the hall. Bells shrill out as we put the last chairs in place. We’re getting ready to perform a scene from ‘Safer Streets – Sam’s Story’ to an assembly for Year Nine.The scene we’ve chosen to perform – an argument between Sam and his mum – provokes gasps and flurries of movement from the audience. The relationship between the characters – personal, real, believable – is what grips the students.

[In the workshops] we introduce the concept of the ‘thoughts, feelings, actions’ triangle, and work in small groups to identify moments where Sam reactions could have been different. We look at tiny changes in one of the areas and how they impact on the outcome for the characters. With this one exercise, we can see the students making the connection between their emotions and their behaviour. One boy raises his hand. ‘If you choose to change one thing, they all change, don’t they?’ he asks. ‘Is that a choice you can always make?’ Anthony, the facilitator, asks the class. Yes, they nod. It is.

Some of the lads, in particular, are keen to preserve their ‘hard’ image. One boy sprawls across the floor. He describes himself as a ‘G-man’ – a gangster. At fourteen, he may not be part of an actual gang yet, but the idea clearly holds attraction for him, giving him identity and status.

Over the week, we work with these groups again and again. Each time we introduce a new concept, relating it to the play. We deal with themes of belonging, peer pressure, relationships, goals and dreams. It’s evident that these kids live in the moment; they are constantly jostling for status and attention, demanding respect from their peers but not necessarily giving it in return. It’s our job to give them alternatives.

Through the exercises, we begin to explore how they can shape their future and their identity from their inner choices and attitudes. That concept – of vision, of possibilities, of self-determination – is what marks us out as different. One girl dominates the group. She’s tall, striking, with a distinctive voice. Whatever we ask her to do, she does with gusto, but we can see she’s used to pulling focus. Yet those qualities – confidence, a desire to be the centre of attention, physical presence – that might make her a disruptive influence, are also the qualities that might give her focus and direction. After the class, as she’s gathering up her things, I go up to her. ‘Can I have a word?’ Her face shuts down – she’s guarded, mistrustful. It’s clear she’s expecting to be told off. ‘Have you ever thought of joining a drama group?’I ask her. ‘No,’ she says warily, ‘why?’ ‘Because I think you’d be good at it,’ I say simply. Her face suddenly softens. ‘Do you think so?’ She looks younger somehow, flushed with praise. ‘Yes. I do.’ And I leave her to think about it as she goes to her next class.

On the final day, we set up once again. This time, the students are primed – they’ve been working with us for a week, and have a sense not only of the characters but of the deeper concepts behind the play. I hear little gasps of recognition as something we’ve suggested in the workshop suddenly connects with the events of the play. There is laughter – the piece is, in places, very funny – and shouts of outrage at some of the choices of the characters. Yet by the end of the play, as I get up to deliver my final speech, I see one of the ‘hard’ lads surreptitiously wiping away tears.

In the plenary session, the kids are animated but respectful. When Anthony describes a triangle in the air with his hands, they immediately know what concept he’s referring to. ‘Thoughts, feelings, actions!’ they call out. ‘Change one, you change the rest!’ Anthony draws a Venn diagram – they know, instantly, that he’s talking about the different ‘circles of belonging’ – areas of your life where you feel under pressure to behave a certain way, and what choices you can make. The themes of the play have connected with them on a deep level. Sam’s story has become their story.

The week is over and we’re clearing away. I reflect on what a privilege it’s been to be involved with this project, giving young people a sense of possibility, of the future, of what they can achieve and who they can be. But I wonder if they will act on those possibilities. Suddenly I see a movement at the corner of my eye. It’s the tall girl from earlier in the week, waving to attract my attention. Her face is shining, and she calls across the hall, ‘I’m going to be an actress! Watch out for me on the silver screen!’ I wave back and she disappears out of the door. I carry on clearing away with a grin on my face. I believe her.

I’m sure this isn’t in the programme notes, but this is an Aristotelian conception of virtue – of how even within the most constrained circumstances we can rethink what is important to us, and begin to change our lives by making better choices and holding onto higher values.

Do look at the TenTen website. And if you are a teacher or youth worker do get in touch with them and make a booking.

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A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins changed the way the bulletin-board on his website functioned. He was shocked by the reactions left in the comment boxes, which were often abusive, angry, and even hysterical.

“Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial,” he wrote. “Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people?” There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it”.

Why is the internet a breeding ground for such venom? It’s not just the anonymity afforded to those who respond, or the speed with which the responses can be posted. It’s also the feedback mechanism that allows members of internet groups to reinforce for each other both their best convictions and their worst prejudices.

lights and crowds by gaspi *your guide.

James Harkin describes the process:

 The paradox of the “wisdom of online crowds” is that it only works in clubbable, relatively small groups of like-thinking minds. The reason why the richest and most productive audiences online are for the most arcane subjects – on the relationship between economics and law, for example, or how to care for cats – is because everyone involved feels part of an exclusive club dedicated to finding out more about the same thing.

However, it’s for exactly the same reason that many of these clubs can become breeding grounds for vicious tribalism. The brevity required for communication on Twitter does not lend itself to decorous etiquette, but neither is it the soul of wit to circulate snide, snarky tweets to an enthusiastic group of followers.

Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them.

When everyone is reinforcing everyone else’s opinion in an online echo-chamber, there’s little need to state a case or debate one’s opponent. It’s easier – like the schoolyard bully – just to abuse them. The other problem with online “communities” is that decisions about quality often become snagged in a highly conservative and self-reinforcing feedback loop in which everyone queues up to follow the leader. 

So it’s hard to keep a website or blog running that will genuinely be a place of dialogue and discussion, rather than just a tribal meeting point.

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One of our Lenten ‘disciplines’ in the seminary is to eat Thursday lunch in silence. What this means in practice is: no talking; a spiritual book is read for about 15 minutes; and whenever the particular chapter is finished we spend the rest of the time listening to the ambient noises in the dining room.

I’m certainly not the first to write about this, but you do notice a lot of things when the noise of chatter dies down. The sound of cutlery on crockery, of the boiler in the basement, of chopping in the kitchen next door. The detailing around you: the grain in the wooden table, the words ‘stainless steel’ stamped into some (but not all) of the knives. Time itself changes. I’d never realised how long, in the silence, it can take someone to eat just half an apple.

Tenderly touch - Un delicado contacto - Zärtliche Berührung by alles-schlumpf.

People, above all, are transformed. In a strange way you can be more present, not less, to another person in silence. Words can sometimes become an unintentional smokescreen to meeting another, and the sheer physical reality of the human being (and even their inner life) can be appreciated in a new way. Yes, words can reveal a person; but a person is more than their words — and that’s easy to forget.

The book we are using, by the way, is The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints by Robert Ellsberg — which I highly recommend for personal reading.

Here’s a preview from the Macmillan website:

A noted spiritual writer seeks answers to life’s big questions in the stories of the saints. In All Saints –published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind –Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints to answer the questions: What is happiness, and how might we find it?

Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists in a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of “lessons” in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship, and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives. In these “lessons,” our guides are the saints: historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of “life in abundance,” the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.

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Zadie Smith reads at the Ding Dong lounge by deenah moffie.

Zadie Smith giving a reading

I posted a few weeks ago about hedgehogs and foxes: Isaiah Berlin’s way of categorising intellectuals as ‘big thinkers’ with one key idea, or as feral creatures who scurry around picking up scattered ideas.

Zadie Smith has a wonderful article about the process of writing a novel. She says that there are two distinct approaches. The Macro Planner ‘makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page’. The security of the overarching structure gives him a freedom to adapt what goes on inside. The Micro Manager, Smith herself, starts at the first sentence of a novel and finishes at the last. The story can only emerge once the starting point is right.

It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title. I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice. In one day the first 20 pages can go from first-person present tense, to third-person past tense, to third-person present tense, to first-person past tense, and so on. Several times a day I change it. Because I am an English novelist enslaved to an ancient tradition, with each novel I have ended up exactly where I began: third person, past tense. But months are spent switching back and forth. Opening other people’s novels, you recognise fellow Micro Managers: that opening pile-up of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. In the case of On Beauty, my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first 20 pages for almost two years. To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first 20 pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.

Yet while OPD is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

I always thought I was Macro Planner: I’m pretty organised and I like to know where I am going. But I recognise this experience of obsessing about a single sentence, or searching for a single idea or image. Often, writing a talk or a sermon, I will draft a whole plan — and it just doesn’t work. It’s only when I find a single thought that encapsulates what is important and what I want to say that it all falls into place, like a roll of carpet unfurling itself with a single shake.

It’s well worth reading the whole article and applying it not just to writing, but to thinking, and to life. I like especially step number 8: ‘Step away from the vehicle’.

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I don’t often post about trivia (although some of you may disagree…), but this online Flower Garden is so simple and so delightful that I can’t resist. You click with the mouse anywhere on the black screen and a flower appears; or you just hold down the left button on the mouse and drag the cursor across the screen for a splashier effect.

It’s a form of doodling. It’s an experience of playing God – walking through the Garden of Eden and saying ‘let it be’. It’s gardening without the digging or the waiting. It’s the Chelsea Flower Show without the £30 ticket. I know you are thinking this is beneath you – but click on the image above to open up the site, and have a go. It will distract you from hours of important business!

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Matteo Ricci SJ by Romanus_too.May 11th this year will be the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit missionary to China. “Li Madou” (his Chinese name) died in Beijing and was buried on Chinese soil, an honour not normally given to foreigners, but granted by the emperor as a tribute to his wisdom and love for the Chinese.

Ricci was a pioneer in the theology of ‘inculturation': immersing himself in Chinese life, with a profound love and respect for the culture, in the hope of creating a genuine dialogue – so allowing the unchanging Gospel message to flower in a new soil and in a new way. He is also an example of how scientific genius and Christian faith can go hand in hand.

Here is a summary of his life that came out on Zenit yesterday, in connection with an international congress on “Science, Reason, Faith: The Genius of Father Matteo Ricci,” held in Macerata.

Born in Macerata on October 6, 1552, the future “Apostle of China” entered the Society of Jesus in Rome at age 18, where he soon heard the call to a missionary vocation.
 
In 1557, before he was ordained a priest, he requested to be posted to the missions in the Far East. Thus he left for Portugal, to begin preparations for the Oriental apostolate. Embarking from Lisbon with 14 Jesuit brothers, Ricci arrived on September 13, 1578 to Goa, India, where St. Francis Xavier was buried.
 
Ricci spent some years in India, teaching in the Jesuit schools, before his priestly ordination. He celebrated his first Mass on July 26, 1580.
 
Soon after, the Jesuit Visitor of Missions in the Indies (including China and Japan), Alessandro Valignano, asked Father Ricci to go to Macau, then a Portuguese colony in China, to study the Chinese language and to prepare to enter mainland China, at that time impenetrable to foreigners.
 
The much awaited entry took place on September 10, 1583. Father Ricci and his companion Michele Ruggiere arrived in Zhaoqing, where they began to build the first house and church, finished in 1585. The small Jesuit community later moved to Shaoguan.
 
Well received by the Wanli Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Father Ricci was raised to the rank of Mandarin, received in the Celestial Empire, and welcomed by top civil and military officials.
 
“To be Chinese with the Chinese” was Father Ricci’s innovative method of evangelization, which encompassed the ability to adapt himself to local customs and traditions in order to be closer to those to whom he proclaimed the Gospel.
 
The way of “inculturation” chosen by the Jesuit, joined to the tireless practice of charity, bore fruits as he was able to dialogue with both important dignitaries as well as poor people, all of whom were impressed by the missionary’s great respect for Confucianism and for the Chinese cultural patrimony.
 
Father Ricci’s scientific knowledge also aroused great admiration. He took to China Western mathematics and geometry, as well as the great contributions of the Renaissance in the fields of geography, cartography and astronomy.
 
In addition to teaching numerous scientific and humanistic subjects in Chinese, he left a great number of works, such as the “Treatise on Friendship,” the “Chinese World Map,” the treatise on the “Genuine Notion of the Lord of Heaven,” “Synthesis of Christian Doctrine,” “Christianity in China,” “Commentaries” and “Letters from China.” These works contributed in a decisive way to the foundation of modern Sinology and the spread of Western knowledge in China and the whole of the East.

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Congratulations to Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker for their six Oscars yesterday evening. I like to think that, if you read between the lines, I predicted this in my post about the film last September. Well, what I mean is that I gave it a good review.

Fish Tank should have got the best picture Oscar (see the Guardian review here), but by Hollywood standards this was a pretty good choice.

The Hurt Locker by Fan the Fire Magazine.

The Hurt Locker

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Andrew Marr examines three recent sci-fi films (Avatar, District 9, and Surrogates) and draws some conclusions about how people understand themselves in the West.

avatar 阿凡達 阿凡达 by 邪恶的正太.

Avatar image by Juehuayin

He detects a lack of confidence in the whole human project emerging from these films. It’s not just that we face particular problems and are not sure how to overcome them. It’s that we are wondering whether there is any point at all in trying to overcome them. So it’s not the present situation of humankind that is in question, but the very meaning and purpose of being human. “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

[Plot spoiler coming] It’s interesting that the only way of ‘redemption’ for human beings at the end of Avatar is to renounce being human.

See if you agree with Marr’s assessment:

They are all anxiety films, even hysteria films, but they have a special edge. The bad guys seem to be human beings in general, and our corporate-capitalist system in particular. Avatar self-doubt pits a humanity that has ravaged their home planet against the indigenous blue pixies of the lush Pandora. There are “good humans” of course, a minority of geeky biologists and a disabled man, but we are left in no doubt about the insanely greedy and aggressive tendencies of most of the bipedal inhabitants of grey and battered Earth…

Though they are dark films, they are in a different category from the familiar cheery genre of apocalypse- soon movies, such as the recent (and hilariously awful) 2012. Nor are they like the earlier aliens-are-coming films, from Independence Day to Mars Attacks, in which it’s up to humanity to repel boarders. Indeed, that’s the point; recent film-making has switched the good guys and bad guys around. These films say that humans are greedy, stupid, rapacious and often lazy. They say we are infinitely suggestible, prone to being moulded by corporate interests, and at risk of being captured by our own technology.

They are, in short, films with a strong dose of human self-hatred running through them. This is anger and satire, directed against the main forward thrust of Western life, as mass entertainment…

But I do think the historians of a century ahead, writing about our times, will use the films in our cinemas right now to discuss the decline of the West. They will talk about a radical lack of self-confidence in the project of enlightenment-science-plus-corporate- capitalism, a spectacular loss of nerve. They will observe how fear about the coming “singularity” in computing power, remorse about wars in Asia and environmentalist horror about rainforest destruction and species extinction combined to shake the West’s belief in its destiny. And then they will contrast all that with the brash confidence, even triumphalism, of the Chinese film industry as a set piece contrast in how art imitates life.

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Colosseum by rutty.

The Colosseum - scene of early Christian persecutions

It’s not often that Pope Benedict and the comedian Frank Skinner join theological forces. Skinner has an opinion piece in yesterday’s Times that echoes, in his own chirpy and irreverent way, Pope Benedict’s suggestion that Christianity can have an influential role in the post-Christian West as a creative minority.

I’ll explain at the end why I am not sure about this, but here are some choice quotations from the Skinner article:

Personally, I like our ever-dwindling status. I even like our ever-dwindling numbers. There was a time when social pressure made people go to church. If anything the reverse is now true. Most adults you see in church nowadays are there because they want to be there. That’s not decline, it’s progress. The wheat has been separated from the chaff. We get quality, not quantity, in the churches and the chaff can enjoy a nice lie-in…

Christians have always worked best as an unpopular minority. We were surely at our most dynamic when we knelt, eyes to Heaven, hands clasped in prayer, with a Colosseum lion bounding towards us.

That’s why I think Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is wrong to get his cassock in a twist about changing attitudes to Christianity in this country. He speaks of a “strident and bullying campaign” to marginalise Christianity. But that’s great news. “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake”…

I’m a little wary of muscular Christianity. It’s been used to justify everything from the Crusades to the shooting of abortion doctors. It seems to be in direct contradiction to “Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”…

Surely the central image of Christianity is someone who can shoot fireballs out of his fingertips allowing himself to be nailed to a wooden cross — submission as the ultimate show of strength — love as impenetrable armour. Most British Christians are badly dressed, unattractive people. We’re not pushy and aggressive members of society. We’re a bit like Goths — no one can remember us being fashionable and we talk about death a lot. I love the glorious un-coolness of that…

Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls. I’m enjoying this current dose of persecution. It’s definitely good for the soul.

This idea works if you believe that people are either wheat or chaff; that we are either ‘true Christians’ or ‘Christians in name only’ who might as well give up the pretence of Christianity now. But, to change the metaphor, I think we are more like seeds: thrown into the soil of the society and culture in which we live.

So if that culture is conducive to Christian faith; if it nourishes it, encourages it, gives it meaning, and helps it to grow — then many of us will indeed grow in our faith. But if it is antagonistic, negative, barren — then many of us who might otherwise have flourished, might give up altogether.

I’m not saying that we bear no responsibility for living our faith, and that we can simply blame the culture. I’m just stating what I think is a historical fact: that in times of severe persecution, despite the heroism and sacrifice of many Christians, many others are pressured into abandoning their faith, and this doesn’t mean that they didn’t have any faith in the first place.

That’s why I believe, much more than I used to, in the importance of building a culture (and institutions) that support Christian faith; and why I am much more sympathetic, and heartbroken, when good people abandon their faith because of the struggles they have had to face.

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It’s six months since I started the blog — so I’ve kept my resolution, and seen this experimental period through to its end.

I won’t give another profound reflection here on the nature of blogging, the transformation of human identity wrought by the internet, the psychology of self-doubt experienced whenever the stats page opens up, etc. This is just to say that I’ve decided to keep going and see where it all ends up.

I thought of changing the name to ‘Bridges, Tangents, and Piers’. I was in Llandudno this morning; a beautiful seaside town on the north Wales coast. It’s got one of those classic British piers, beloved of so many childhood holidays.

Llandudno Pier by Welshdan.

Llandudno pier

As a child, for me, piers were up there with bridges and tangents as objects of fascination and awe. I suppose a pier is quite literally a bridge to nowhere, a tangent caressing the curvature of the earth’s surface. It’s a suspension of disbelief — walking on water, gliding with the seagulls, and for just a moment believing you could keep walking and step out into the beyond.

My first ever screenprint for O-level art was a pier. The first layer of ink created a dark and slightly frightening latticework of pillars and crossbeams reaching down into the waves. And then in the next layer of colour, leaping from the end of the pier, was an Icarus-type figure — his wings splayed behind him like an angel, caught in that split second of uncertainty before he discovers whether he will sink or soar.

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Globes on the Wall, detail by IK's World Trip.A friend gave me a beautiful old globe recently. A wooden base; a fake bronze arm with the degrees of latitude marked; and even with the mountainous regions sticking up in 3-D relief.

Or at least, I thought it was old; and we spent half an hour trying to date it with our own native intelligence.

Without being very systematic, we looked around at the countries and borders. There was Russia, and no Soviet Union. A united Germany with Berlin marked as the capital. The Czech republic. So we are into the 1990s.

It was harder to find a date ‘before which’ the globe had to be made, especially when my political history is not very accurate. But eventually we found ‘Hong Kong (UK)’, so it couldn’t be this decade; and then Zaire, instead of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had no idea exactly when Zaire changed its name, but I knew it was relatively recently.

That’s as far as we got. It was like a parlour game. And then we went to the internet and found that the Replogle website (the company that makes the globe) has a marvellous ‘how old is your globe‘ page, stretching back to 1939. It does for you exactly what we were doing ourselves, without the fun, but with some claim to accuracy. It turns out that we did pretty well. The page lists all of the political/geographical changes that have coincided with the production of new globes. Here is a selection of the most recent dates, with NEW NAME, DATE OF CHANGE, OLD NAME, and LOCATION:

  • Montenegro, 2006, Serbia and Montenegro, E. of Italy
  • Serbia and Montenegro, 2003, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy
  • East Timor, 1999, Indonesia, isle N. of Australia
  • Congo, Dem. Repub. Of, 1997, Zaire, Central Africa
  • Samoa, 1997, Western Samoa, S. Pacific Ocean
  • Czech. Rep., 1993, Czechoslovakia, S. of Germany & Poland
  • Eritrea, 1993, Ethiopia (part), N. of Ethiopia, S. end of Red Sea
  • Slovakia, 1993, Czechoslovakia, S. of Poland
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy
  • Croatia, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy
  • Macedonia, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), N. of Greece
  • Slovenia, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy

So with the Czech Republic and DR Congo we actually did as well as we could, and guessed into the mid-1990s (1993 to 1997 as it turned out to be); even though we hadn’t been sure if Zaire disappeared before or after ‘Hong Kong (UK)’. You can play this game whenever you come across a globe. But, like Trivial Pursuit, it’s ruined once you memorise the answers.

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