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Archive for June, 2010

On 18 April 2005 the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached to the cardinals who were assembled in Rome to elect the new Pope. He provoked a huge amount of discussion by saying that Western culture is creating ‘a dictatorship of relativism’.

Here is the homily in full; and here is the relevant paragraph:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

I was involved this week in a programme by Edward Stourton about the significance of this provocative term, and the place of religion more generally in contemporary culture and politics. The Analysis programme was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday evening; you can listen to it hear on BBC iPlayer.

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Forget Toy Story 3 - the greatest piece of sophisticated entertainment for children is here at the poisson rouge website.

Some parents may be against young children using computer games at all. But if you are going to dip into the world of children’s websites, I would thoroughly recommend this one. (Click on the link above or the picture below, which takes you to the menu page. Each of the images on this page opens up a game of its own.)

It’s beautifully designed. There is a huge selection of games, puzzles, tasks and learning opportunities. It’s all intuitive – a child of two can work out what to do without any instructions from an adult. And instead of trapping children into the passivity of the TV it seems to open them up to endless sources of wonder and fun – like a toddler chasing pigeons in the park.

I sat and watch a two-year old playing on the site, and I kept fighting with him to have a go. The problem of me posting about this is that any adults following the link at work will waste hours of their employer’s time on it.

I’d love to know what any parents think. Is it good, healthy, educationally sound fun? Or is it the road to digital perdition? (Yes, my two-year old friend can use a touchpad with great facility before he has even mastered the pen or pencil.)

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There have been lots of good articles out about Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary to China, in this year which marks the 400th anniversary of his death. This one by Nicolas Standaert shows how much Ricci and his missionary strategy was shaped by the Chinese culture in which he was immersed.

The first part of the article gives a very helpful summary of the distinctive approach to mission that he developed, under the influence of his former novice master Alessandro Valignano. It would be interesting to apply these principles to the way Christians approach the secular culture in the West today.

Four characteristics of Jesuit missionary strategy in China

As a starting point one can make a first – rather traditional – reading of Ricci’s life by focusing on the missionary himself. The ‘Jesuit missionary strategy’ in China was conceived by Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who was the former novice master of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and who was Jesuit visitor for East Asia during the period 1574-1606. His strategy was creatively put into practice by Matteo Ricci. Later generations, well into the eighteenth century, associated this strategy with Ricci and called it the ‘Ricci-method’. It can be described by four major characteristics[7]:

1. A policy of accommodation or adaptation to Chinese culture.[8] Valignano, who had been disappointed by the limited degree of the Jesuits’ adaptation to Japanese culture, insisted in the first place on knowledge of the Chinese language. Therefore he called a few Jesuits to Macao in 1579 ordering them to focus their attention entirely on the study of language (fellow Jesuits criticised them for spending all their time studying Chinese). Two years later Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) entered China through the south, and Matteo Ricci followed one year later. Probably inspired by the Japanese situation, they dressed like Buddhist monks. In 1595, after nearly fifteen years of experience, they changed this policy and adapted themselves to the life-style and etiquette of the Confucian elite of literati and officials. Ricci was responsible for this change. This new policy remained unchanged throughout the whole seventeenth century and for most Jesuit missionaries Matteo Ricci became the reference point with regard to the accommodation policy.

2. Propagation and evangelisation ‘from the top down’. Jesuits addressed themselves to the literate elite. The underlying idea was that if this elite, preferably the Emperor and his court, were converted, the whole country would be won for Christianity. The elite consisted mainly of literati, who had spent many years of their life preparing for the examinations they needed to pass to become officials. For these examinations they had to learn the Confucian classics and the commentaries. After having passed the Metropolitan examinations, which took place in Beijing every three years and at which about three hundred candidates were selected, they entered the official bureaucracy and received appointments as district magistrates or positions in the ministries. As in modern diplomatic service, the offices usually changed every three years. In order to enter into contact with this elite, Ricci studied the Confucian classics and, with his remarkable gift of memory, became a welcome guest at the philosophical discussion groups that were organised by this elite.

3. Indirect propagation of the faith by using European science and technology in order to attract the attention of the educated Chinese and convince them of the high level of European civilisation. Ricci offered a European clock to the Emperor, he introduced paintings which impressed the Chinese with their use of perspective, translated mathematical writings of Euclid with the commentaries of the famous Jesuit mathematician Christophorus Clavius (1538-1612), and printed an enormous global map which integrated the results of the latest world explorations. By these activities Ricci established friendly relationships which sometimes resulted in the conversion of members of the elite: Xu Guangqi (1562-1633; baptised as Paul in 1603) and Li Zhizao (1565-1630; baptised as Leo in 1610) are the most famous of Ricci’s time.

4. Openness to and tolerance of Chinese values. In China, Matteo Ricci encountered a society with high moral values, for which he expressed his admiration. Educated in the best Jesuit humanistic tradition, he favourably compared Confucius (552-479 BC) with ‘an other Seneca’ and the Confucians with ‘a sect of Epicurians, not in name, but in their laws and opinions’.[9] Ricci was of the opinion that the excellent ethical and social doctrine of Confucianism should be complemented with the metaphysical ideas of Christianity. However, he rejected Buddhism, Taoism, and Neo-Confucianism, which in his eyes was corrupted by Buddhism. Ricci pleaded for a return to original Confucianism, which he considered to be a philosophy based on natural law. In his opinion it contained the idea of God. Finally, he adopted a tolerant attitude towards certain Confucian rites, such as the ancestral worship and the veneration of Confucius, which soon were labelled ‘civil rites’.

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A man passed me in the street this morning walking eight dogs. I think that is the most I have seen. And this is central London, not some park in the home counties.

I already posted about the elephants that have been stationed around the streets and parks of London for the last few weeks. You can now see them all in one place, a herd of over 200 life-size baby elephants painted in glorious technicolour. This is for three days only, part of the ‘viewing’ process before they are auctioned off. It’s open today (25th June), tomorrow (26th) and Monday (28th). 10am to 7pm at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Admission is free. See the poster here.

It was extraordinary, driving down the embankment on Wednesday morning, to peer through the railings as the elephants were being put in place. And to see two of them flying through the air, a good 40 feet up, as the cranes lifted them into position. You won’t get a chance to see a sight like this very often.

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Jack's Beanstalk

I forgot to blog about the Kingdom of Ife exhibition at the British Museum, and I’ve just found out that it closes on 4 July. So you have a few days to go.

This is the exhibition that includes those remarkable brass heads from 14th and 15th century West Africa. They are stately and serene, but still highly personal. William Bascom, an American anthropologist who was involved in the finds, wrote: “Little that Italy or Greece or Egypt ever produced could be finer, and the appeal of their beauty is immediate and universal”

Less powerful, but equally interesting, were two terracotta chameleons about 4 inches long, each perched on a stone. Chameleons had a mythical status in Ife culture, and the captions retold the Ife creation myth (I’m summarising):

Olodumare, the supreme god who inhabited the sky, sent the god Orishanla to create the world and humankind. He got drunk on palm wine and fell asleep, so his younger brother Oduduwa took over the job.

Oduduwa climbed down an iron chain that had been hung from the sky to the watery land below. He carried from the sky above a snail-shell full of soil, a five-toed chicken, and a chameleon. He emptied out the soil, and the dry land was formed by the chicken kicking the soil around as he searched for food. The chameleon tested the land to see if it was firm. And then Orishanla (now sober) created human beings, while Oduduwa formed the rest of the living world. Oduduwa is described as the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

I love creation stories. But this one excited me so much because it reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. This beautiful image of the world above being united to our own world by some kind of cord. Either let down from above, like the chain; or grown up from below, like the beanstalk. The Tower of Babel. Jacob’s ladder. The Cross. Human desire stretching up; and God – perhaps – reaching down. Although for Jack the world above the clouds was not particularly heavenly.

It was always one of my favourite children’s stories. And even the comic version done for TV by the Goodies seemed magical to me. I must find a modern children’s book to see how it is being depicted today.

Here is the British Museum plug for the exhibition. It’s well worth catching:

This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of brass, copper, stone and terracotta sculpture from West Africa.

The Kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) was a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa (in what is now modern south-west Nigeria). 

Ife flourished as a political, spiritual, cultural and economic centre in the 12th–15th centuries AD, and was an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.

The exhibition features superb pieces of Ife sculpture, drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper to create a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. The technical sophistication of the casting process is matched by the artworks’ enduring beauty.

The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include images of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity.

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My geekness extends to an interest in traffic management systems and signage. In case you think this is completely off-centre, the romantic hero of Cameron Crowe’s Singles was a traffic engineer with the city council who spent his evenings worrying about how minute changes in the traffic light phasing could lead to urban chaos. (OK, I think this did cause a few problems in his relationships…)

One of the junctions near me in Chelsea has been given a glorious new makeover. It’s a T-junction: where Oakley Street, which runs from the Albert Bridge, meets the King’s Road, just where the fire station is. The pedestrian barriers have been removed; most of the traffic lights have been placed on adjacent lamp-posts, and the old poles removed; the bollards are no longer bollards, but have become arrow signs held up by thin steel tubes; and the pavements are lower. From a distance the stone-work looks like marble. It gives you a sense of space and freedom. And it makes you appreciate for the first time how cluttered and ugly most junctions are.

I read about this years ago, when the ‘shared space’ philosophy was first applied to Kensington High Street. The counter-intuitive idea is that if you give people fewer instructions about when and where and how to move around city centres, and if you open the common spaces up and de-clutter them, then everyone will become more sensitive to the presence of others, and more careful as they walk and drive around. It’s wonderful to see this experiment spreading to our area.

High Street Kensington. Boring photo, but notice: no railings, low pavement, hanging arrows instead of bollards

This is how the Brake website describes it:

‘Naked roads’ are roads without any of the usual street furniture such as traffic lights, signs, kerbs, white lines and other road markings.

Although initially this may seem like it would cause chaos on the roads and an increase in road crashes, at specific types of location naked roads have had the opposite effect and improved safety, according to some reports.

Although it is thought the naked road idea has its roots in the Home Zone (or woonerf) concept, it is largely attributed to Hans Monderman, who was appointed Head of Road Safety for the northern provinces of the Netherlands in the 1980s. Monderman was given a wide brief to tackle rising pedestrian casualties in towns and villages, and having studied incident reports and conventional traffic engineering for many years, he decided to try a very different, psychology-based approach to improving road safety in some locations where space was shared by a range of road users. Monderman said: “When faced with a safety problem, most engineers tend to install something additional. My instinct is always to take something away.” [1]

Monderman’s belief stemmed from the recognition by behavioural psychologists that single-purpose road such as motorways demand different cognitive skills to the complex human context of shared space in towns. Single-purpose roads benefit from simple, repetitive signs and signals. But it is believed that the opposite is true in a shared space.

Makkinga is a small village in Friesland, which is a province in the north of the Netherlands. The village of Makkinga has a central high street running through it, which is used by children getting to school and by people passing through the village. It is also popular with tourists and has a flea market. The highway in Makkinga used to follow the design principles that traffic was given priority over pedestrians and cyclists. Traditional traffic control measures such as lights, traffic calming and signage were used. As with the scheme in Drachten, Monderman removed all traffic signs, markings and other instructions to drivers to prevent the road looking like a space designed for traffic. This created a more social space which encourages drivers to make eye contact with other road users to inform them of their intended actions.

And here is an old report from Ben Webster when the Kensington scheme was just getting going:

In Kensington High Street, almost 600 metres of railings have been removed to allow pedestrians to cross where they want. The results have discredited the belief that railings prevent accidents: in the two years after they were removed, pedestrian casualties declined three times faster than the London average. Traffic engineers believe that drivers are now keeping a sharper eye out for pedestrians because they know that they may cross at any point.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is planning to introduce shared space ideas to Sloane Square next year. The aim is to encourage pedestrians to make greater use of the square, which is currently marooned by busy roads. A similar scheme is being planned for Exhibition Road. The idea of removing traffic lights was supported in a report published last month by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Martin Cassini, the report’s author, said: “Removing lights removes barriers to traffic flow and improves behaviour. If you observe a junction where the lights are out of action, there is rarely congestion. People approach slowly, wave each other on and filter in turn. Lights and other controls hamper instead of harness human nature, causing untold delay and harm.”

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After all these months of blogging I have a certain brand-loyalty to WordPress, which is the free platform I use. It’s interesting to hear that they have just passed the milestone of 200 million posts published on WordPress.com (so this does not include all the self-hosted blogs using WordPress software).

The news page took me to this WordPress tags page, which shows you the most popular tags used on recent posts. It gives you a snapshot of the areas that interest WordPress bloggers at the moment; and so it is one way of seeing into the mind of the contemporary culture. It shows you not what people are searching for (cf. the stats from Google), but what they are bothering to post about.

Here are the tags this Saturday lunchtime, in order of how many posts are placed in each category:

News Music Life Politics Photography Travel Personal Food Art Family Events Poetry Sports Video Random Books Fashion Writing Entertainment Videos Love Thoughts Reviews Culture Health Movies Technology Education Recipes Media Blog Religion Photos Environment People History Inspiration Friends World Cup Business Film Design Nature Humor Home Musings Philosophy Relationships Football Science Games Work Television Faith Articles 2010 Social Media Miscellaneous Review Spirituality Journal Audio Christianity Economy Pictures] Parenting Quotes Government Announcements Blogging All Publishings Economics Community God Teaching TV Israel Random Thoughts Misc Video Games Fun Updates Marketing World Cup 2010 Rants Law Opinion Islam Fiction Lifestyle Interviews Podcasts Other Literature Photo Sport Children Architecture School Commentary Internet Soccer Beauty Poems Society Stories Shopping All Latest News Cooking Japan Wedding Leadership Fitness Our Family Kids Research Current Events Book Reviews Women Reflections Photo Galleries Europe Status Training Energy Running All Links Obama USA Weddings Gaming My Life Terrorism Bible Animals Creativity Software Anime Sex Me Welcome Dreams Theology English Advertising Daily life Church Featured Funny 

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Fiona Macdonald-Smith interviews John Williams, author of Screw Work, Let’s Play. It’s careers advice on the ‘work-as-self-realisation’ model. The ultimate career goal is to ‘get paid for being me’.

Don’t simply reject it as a hippy fantasy: Even if you are not realistically going to leave your job in the bank and discover your inner novelist, there is much wisdom here about getting in touch with the passions that truly motivate you – the ones you often leave behind because you think you are ‘working’.

“The rules are changing,” he says. “My mum’s belief was that work was to be endured, not enjoyed, and her generation didn’t really have a choice. But we no longer need to be driven by the old work ethic; we have entered the era of what the author Pat Kane calls the Play Ethic — ‘placing yourself, your passions and enthusiasms at the centre of your world’.”

Williams makes it clear that he’s not advocating doing the thing you love and just hoping that the money turns up. “Aristotle said, ‘where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation’. You need to find the sweet spot between the things you love to do and doing them in a way that solves people’s problems for them — and there is your means of earning a living.”

How do you find this sweet spot? How do you even know what you really want?

The answer is to follow your instincts. Imagine someone handed you a year’s salary and said you didn’t have to go back to work for 12 months. What would you do? Sit on a beach? Go travelling? But after the first three months of pleasure and idleness, what would you do then? That, says Williams, is the clue to what you should be doing with your life right now.

He suggests that you get yourself a notebook “Write down everything you discover — what you like, what you don’t like, people whose work or lifestyle you’d like to emulate, ideas for contacts to talk to, projects to try. This is now your playbook.”

You should also make like Columbo — the detective with the famous line, “Just one more thing”. “You can learn a lot from Columbo,” he says thoughtfully. “No clue goes unnoticed by him, and it shouldn’t by you. What part of a bookshop draws you in? What did you enjoy doing as a child? It doesn’t have to be something that immediately seems ‘creative’, just driven by a genuine interest — I had a client who, it turned out, wanted to be a City trader: one of the clues was that he always turned to the business section of the newspaper first.”

Try to make every Wednesday a day when you get a little bit closer to your ideal life. “Halfway between weekends, it’s the ideal time to build a little play into your working week,” Williams says. “Even if you can grab only a few minutes out of your day, do it. If you want to be a poet, take a book of poems to read and a notebook to write in on your commute. Then find ways to free up more time as the weeks go on.”

The problem is, Williams says, that we tend to have a job mindset, and that doesn’t necessarily serve us well in the current climate of economic upheaval. We think like an employee and look for a hole to fit into, whereas we should be thinking like an entrepreneur — what are my strengths, how can I create something from scratch that fits me like a glove? “If you can think like that, you’ll be better placed to survive big shifts in the economy,” Williams says. “If you have a self-driven, passionate, creative approach you’re one of a kind, and can’t so easily be outsourced.”

Some of this connects with the advice we give here at the seminary about how to discern your vocation. Often what starts people on the vocational journey is a ‘just one more thing’ moment.

[Addition:] A friend just sent me this quote from Mons. Luigi Giusanni:

What I must do, what I must be – my vocation – does not normally emerge as a specific command, but as a suggestion, a proposal, an invitation. Vocation, which is the meaning of one’s life, introduces itself more as a glimpse of a possibility than as something absolutely inevitable. The more difficult the task to be accomplished the truer this is. In its purest and most evocative aspect, awareness is the most discreet cue: it is inspiration. Thus one confirms one’s personal worth by readily agreeing to the subtlest of possibilities.

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I went on a Cardinal Newman pilgrimage at the weekend. We took a coach from London and spent most of the day in Oxford.

The first stop, just outside Oxford itself, was the site of Newman’s reception into full communion with the Catholic Church. This is how Roderick Strange describes it in his John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive.

When people speak of Newman’s conversion, they are usually referring to the events of 8 and 9 October 1845, that windswept night when Father Dominic Barberi, drenched by rain from his journey exposed to the weather, arrived in Littlemore, the village where Newman had made his home after resigning as Vicar of the University Church and retiring to lay communion as an Anglican. He began to hear Newman’s confession that evening and it continued the following morning. Then he received him into the Roman Catholic Church.

You can see the room where he slept and thought and wrote so many letters; the chapel where he prayed; the library where he and his friends studied and talked.

But what moved me most? His stand-up desk! I’ve used one for the last year, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone else’s. I felt an immediate bond. Mine is an improvised affair, consisting of four metal waste paper baskets from Rymans placed on my normal office desk, with a piece of wood I found in the attic balanced on top. I put the computer on the raised table, and it is just the right height for me to type standing up. I get some funny looks when people walk into my office, but they are getting used to it.

Why do I risk the humiliation? I was getting some back-ache from sitting in the same position for so long; I went to an orthopedic furniture shop to get a fancy chair, and they suggested I try standing up to vary the posture. It has worked like a dream. You can move and stretch and relax without getting stuck in some awkward position for hours; then sit down for a change when you are tired. I highly recommend it to anyone. And the bins (£2.99 each) were cheaper than the chairs (which started at about £400). Apparently, you can get electric desks that go up and down, so you can move from sitting to standing at the flick of a switch; but I think they are out of my league.

Newman’s is a fine wooden desk: The top slopes down towards you so you get a nice angle. The height is adjustable. There is a length of wood at the bottom of the slope to stop the paper sliding off. What more could you want? I’m sure this was the secret of his success.

There is a nice religious note to add as well. When Fr Barberi wanted to celebrate Mass the next day there was no suitable altar (the chapel they used was simply an oratory, and the eucharist would not have been celebrated there). So they brought in this stand-up desk, flattened it and lowered the top as far as it would go, and used it for the altar. So it was from this extraordinary piece of Victorian furniture that he received his first Holy Communion as a Catholic. Out of reverence for this sacred moment, he never used it as a desk again.

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I heard this on the radio a few days ago. It’s not a trick. It’s one of those quick tests/experiments you can do to help you understand yourself better. You have to do the test quickly and spontaneously, without analysing it. I’ll tell you what to do now, and then put some pictures in between to stop you reading the explanation before you have finished.

Using the first finger of your dominant hand, trace out the capital letter ‘Q’ on your forehead.

That’s it. Remember what you did, and read on. [Here are some random photos to stop you scrolling down too quickly]:

 

 

This is from Richard Wiseman’s Quirkology website, “The curious science of everyday lives”. And here is his analysis:

This fun test provides some insight into whether you are ‘self’ or ‘other’ centered. These two types of people have a very different way of seeing the world, and one type is no better or worse than the other.

There are two ways of completing this exercise. Some people draw the tail of the ‘Q’ on the right hand side of their forehead whilst others draw it on the left.

Self-centered people tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it can be read by themselves [as if seeing the letter on your forehead from inside your head, looking out]. They tend to come across as being the ‘same person’ in different situations, and their behaviour is guided more by their own values than the needs of others. They pride themselves on being straight with people, and expect others to be honest with them. Because of this, they are not especially good at lying, but are better at detecting lies in others.

People who are other-centered tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it can be seen by someone facing them. They tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the center of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at influencing the way in which others see them. Because of this they are often good at lying, but not so good at detecting lies.

The other way of explaining this is in the language of ‘self-monitoring’ or ‘self-consciousness’, which I prefer, because ‘self-centered’ and ‘other-centered’ sound like value judgments in ordinary speech. So those who draw the Q for others have a higher level of self-monitoring or self-consciousness; while those who draw the Q as they see it looking out have a lower level of self-monitoring or self-consciousness.

Does this give some profound, scientifically-based psychological insights? I don’t know! But the simple fact that people respond in different ways is intriguing enough for me. Perhaps it’s no different from the ‘do you notice what shoes other people are wearing?’ self-analysis; and the corresponding ‘do you care what shoes you are wearing in the presence of others?’

I am a ‘Q-to-myself, self-centered, low self-monitoring’ person.

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It’s hard talking to strangers. I don’t mean when a friend introduces you to one of their friends; or when someone rings the door selling bargain tea-towels; or when you swap health stories in a hospital ward. These are all situations where the context allows you to make conversation, even if it is only for a short time. I mean walking up to someone in the street on a Saturday afternoon because you hope to engage them in a discussion about the meaning of life.

Last weekend I was involved in the Spirit in the City festival. This is a project run by the Catholic parishes in central London – an attempt to make their presence better known to the locals, and to show to the hundreds of thousands of people visiting the West End that there is more to this area than restaurants and night clubs.

On Friday evening I joined a Eucharistic procession from Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, to the French Church in Leicester Place. Three or four hundred people, with a marching band, a few banners, and piles of leaflets and prayer cards to hand out, walking with the Body of the Lord through Covent Garden and Leicester Square. It was a glorious summer evening, and the pavements were thronged with people spilling out of the pubs and bars, either finishing the working day or starting the evening.

An image from the procession in 2007

On Saturday the organisers somehow got permission from the local council to take over Leicester Square itself. A music stage, a prayer tent with continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a tent for confessions, another for discussion. And hoards of young volunteers in turquoise T-shirts handing out prayer cards and trying to engage people in discussion.

I spent a couple of hours on the main pavement between the street cartoonists and the Empire Cinema. Here are the stats (very approximate): I tried to offer a card to everyone who passed. I used a line like, ‘Did you get one of these?’ or ‘Can I give you a card?’ I’d say that about 1 in 6 actually accepted one. When someone did, I tried to start a conversation in a very unthreatening way, for example, ‘There’s a festival on in the square today…’ or ‘We are from the local Catholic churches…’ Of those who took a card, about 1 in 6 stopped to listen. And of these, about half were interested enough to have a conversation. So that means, very roughly, that I had a proper talk with about 1 in 72 people. The ratio was much higher than I expected!

I’m wearing the clerical collar, so they know I’m a Christian. And I found the best line to get a decent conversation going was, ‘Are you religious yourself?’ It allowed people to say ‘No’, and without me asking they nearly always told me why they weren’t. Or to say ‘Yes’ or ‘Sort of…’ and to say what it meant to them.

I had some amazing conversations. I won’t post about them – I feel it’s crossing a line to blog about personal conversations as a priest, even if they are anonymous. But it showed me how open many people are to talking about faith and religion; and how it’s possible to do that without any edge or antagonism – even with strangers. I think the sun helped too.

What’s the point of it all? Ah…the million dollar question. Most people don’t want to talk to strangers about anything, let alone religion. But many do – a surprising number. Genuine conversations. I think that is a good thing in itself, being able to talk and share and explore things. And it’s a sign to others that ordinary Christians like myself (I was one of many) care about their faith and about others enough to want to meet people and talk – it’s a witness. Then, perhaps, these kinds of conversations open something up in the hearts and minds of those who have them, something that might not have come to the surface without this random encounter. Both for the one drawn into the conversation, and for the one who starts it. And they get the free prayer card!

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A lovely follow-up to yesterday’s post about anger and Wayne Rooney’s language.

Brazilian match officials who will be in charge of England’s World Cup opener on Saturday have taken a crash course in English so they can know when players are verbally abusing them.

Referee Carlos Simon and his two assistants, Altemir Hausmann and Roberto Braatz, have learned 20 swear words ahead of Saturday’s match between the two English-speaking nations at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, but Fifa insist it is not something they have had any role to play in.

“We can’t do this in 11 different languages but at least we have to know the swear words in English.”

Braatz revealed English was the only language the referees were studying.

A Fifa spokeswoman said this morning: “No such list has been distributed to the referees.”

Assistant referee Hausmann told Brazilian broadcaster Globo Sport: “We have to learn what kind of words the players say. All players swear and we know we will hear a few.”

I always thought it was a good thing if you were ignorant of the profanities flying around you. It gives you a kind of innocence, an endearing naiveté. The whole ‘point’ of being offended, is that you have not chosen to be offended. What an intriguing idea that the Brazilians are making sure that they are thoroughly prepared to be offended when the time comes!

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Wayne Rooney lost his temper after the England match on Monday and tore into the referee with some foul-mouthed abuse.

Jermain Defoe, his team-mate, offered the classic excuse that this was just a consequence of his passion for the game:

I think Wayne’s temper is a good thing. He has that fire in his belly. If you take that away from him then he won’t be the same player.

Matthew Syed has a nice piece that questions this kind of simplistic psychological defence:

The idea that nastiness and aggression are a necessary adjunct to passion is not merely flawed, but deeply pernicious. Are we to believe that Roger Federer — a sportsman of great courtesy — lacks fervour? That Sir Bobby Charlton — a player who never received a booking for dissent — is a bit of a cold fish? Or would we rather say that these great athletes combine a passion no less ardent than Rooney’s but with the kind of civilising restraint that the England striker has yet to learn?

The reality is that respect for the referee and for opponents does not inhibit sporting passion any more than respect for a lover inhibits sexual passion.

Moral categories merely set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in the same way that the rules of sport set the boundaries of acceptable play. Justifying verbal abuse as a corollary of passion is no less silly than justifying cheating as a corollary of competitiveness. “Take away his inclination to defraud his competitors and you take away his mojo.”

He goes on to make the more general point that in order to be truly effective aggression needs to be channelled and controlled.

You only have to watch Rooney for a game or two to perceive that crude aggression has nothing to do with what makes him tick as a footballer. Quite the reverse. Rooney is among the greatest players in the world when his passion is under control, enabling him not merely to channel his competitive intensity, but also to decode the shifting kaleidoscope of players around him so as to pick out the perfect pass into the path of an on-running team-mate.

It is precisely at the moment when Rooney loses his head that we see him tearing around the pitch haphazardly, lunging dangerously and losing any semblance of his perceptual acuity. It is at precisely this moment that he morphs from footballing colossus into dangerous liability. As any psychologist could tell you, anger rarely sits easily with mental clarity or canny decision-making.

I should make this the first in a series of posts called ‘sporting lessons for life’, but I think there are a thousand books in the shops on that theme already…

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As a follow-up to my recent post about transhumanism and so-called enhancement technologies, I just found out about the ‘MindSpeller’ project at the Catholic University of Leuven. Here is the article I read, and here is the official site.

A team there has developed a compact, portable device that converts brain signals into words and sentences. It doesn’t need a surgical implant, just wearing a sort of swimming-cap with non-intrusive electrodes on the head. With just a few minutes training, so that it gets to know your individual brain responses, you can make specific characters light up on a computer screen, just by thinking them.

Here is a demo of the process. It’s pretty dull until you realise the implications of what is really happening. Remember that the eye movements are not being tracked, so the letters on the screen are chosen simply by the subject thinking about the letters. This is, quite literally, a form of mind reading.

If developed and put into production it will be an enormous help for people who are paralysed and suffer from speech or language impediments.

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One of the few novels that I read again and again (every two or three years) is Don DeLillo’s magnificent Underworld. I won’t give too much plot away, but there is one section where a teenager is wasting his life away in a young offenders’ institution. He’s got no worldly prospects, not desire to put things right or move forward, no personal ambition at all. And the path to his redemption begins when one of his mentors, an elderly Jesuit, asks him to name the holes through which the laces are threaded in his shoes.

The Jesuit has a thing about shoes, and before too long he has given him an education in every aspect of the shoe, and the technical word for every single piece of leather and string and metal and cloth that goes to make up this triumph of human civilisation. (It reminds me, by the way, of that scene in the West Wing Series 6 when Josh first meets Senator Vinick, who gives him a lecture in the art of polishing shoes.) It’s the first time that the teenager has ever really paid attention to the world, and seen that there is a truth out there waiting to be discovered. A truth that is bigger than his narrow emotional connection with his environment that has defined his life up to this point. Even if it is just the truth of the humble shoe.

I say all this because I had one of those ‘vocabulary’ moments yesterday. I was visiting a friend with an outside staircase up to his first floor flat. I kept scuffing my shoes on the front of the steps, and I said that the stairs were very ‘narrow’. My friend said that this wasn’t the right word – narrow would be the width of the stairs from one side to the other. I wanted to describe the horizontal distance from the front edge of one step to the front edge of the next step; the space, in other words, that you have to step into before your foot falls over the edge.

My friend happened to do a carpentry course thirty years ago, went to an old bookshelf and pulled out a dusty file of handwritten notes about the construction of staircases. And there it was. The height of one step above the other is ‘the rise’. And the horizontal distance from the front of one step to the front of the next is ‘the going’. Isn’t that beautiful! A word that describes exactly what I wanted to describe. That people use every day. That was there all the time without me knowing it. The joy of language. And found without Wikipedia — although you can see the Wiki definitions here.

A final connected aside/recommendation: A great track on a great album, Aimee Mann’s ‘I know there’s a word for this’ on her masterpiece Whatever.

Whatever

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I was in Trafalgar Square and got to see “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle”, the new fourth-plinth sculpture by Yinka Shonibare.

It’s what it says on the tin: an enormous scale model of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory from the Battle of Trafalgar, inside a 5m long perspex bottle. Shonibare writes:

For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom.

It’s great fun! The only shame is that you can’t see the ship very well because of the height of the plinth, and because they have painted some fake sea on the bottom of the bottle that obscures the view even further.

It made me reflect on how certain objects don’t just represent particular moments in history, they actually change them. This is part of the theme of the wonderful Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects which I posted about a few weeks ago.

And it made me wonder about the boat that brought my Chinese grandparents from Hong Kong to the UK in the early 1930s. (They were from mainland Canton, but had to stay in Hong Kong for 18 months to wait for their visas.) What kind of ship was it? What was it called? Where is it now? It’s part of my family history, part of my own personal story. I wouldn’t be here to write this post without it.

These are Adrian Searle’s reflections on the work:

Nelson on his column looks distant and far away. Yinka Shonibare‘s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, which has fetched up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, looks delicate and small in its clear plastic bottle, stopped by an oversized cork and sealed with wax. Less a sculpture than a symbol, it is almost kitsch, and mounted on a vaguely nautical wooden stand whose portholes are actually air vents, whose hidden whirring fans prevent the whole thing from steaming up with condensation – though I rather like the idea of the ship looming in a bottled fog. Shonibare’s work is the sort of thing one might come across in a coastal shopping mall, and it sits on the plinth as though on a mantelpiece. I suppose I oughtn’t to like it; but I do, very much. It brings out the little boy and the sailing pond admiral in me. Perhaps it appeals to a rather conservative sort of artistic taste, like Jeff Koons’s giant, flower-covered puppy, which stands outside the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (and which has led locals to dub the museum “the doghouse”). But then I’m fond of the mutt too.

Shonibare’s Victory aims for seafaring accuracy, though those bright batik-print sails would have been unwise should Nelson have tried to hide from the enemy. Nor is Nelson recorded as having said: “Pimp my Victory.” But for all its seeming obviousness and disconcerting, almost camp, appeal, the latest fourth plinth commission does manage to celebrate both Nelson’s success at Trafalgar and the postcolonial multi-ethnic mix and mingle of Britain today. It is an ironical corrective to Rule Britannia patriotism, as is the artist’s insistence on using his MBE, which is printed on the wax seal alongside his name (the British-born Nigerian artist was awarded the title in 2004). But the thing about ships in bottles is that they’re not sailing anywhere. Perhaps this is a further symbol of Britain today: a message no one wants to read.

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Cultural critic Fr Martin Boland questions the idea that football has become a substitute for religion in secular modernity. His reflections were inspired by what he thinks might be the greatest television advert of all time, which you can see here:

He accepts that football has become a central part of the popular imagination:

Football, as the Write the Future advert shows, has mesmerised the collective cultural imagination, both locally and globally. But it wasn’t always so. Before the age of Sky TV and the big bucks of international oligarchs, football attracted a loyal, enthusiastic following but there remained a great mass of people who considered the game as a prehistoric pastime, a sporting brontosaurus on its way to extinction. Their image of football was of socially disenfranchised men passing through creaking turnstiles and standing on crumbling terraces beneath dishwater grey skies. Players with bad haircuts, bad shorts and bad prospects.

Then, the reinvention began. A makeover on an international scale. Football went designer and everybody (even those who knew next to nothing about football) wanted to wear the label, have others sniff the scent on them. New stadiums gleamed. Players, oiled and manicured, modelled Dolce & Gabbana underpants with the word Calcio on their waistbands. Football got funky and sexy. Football, if not writing the future, acquired the power to write big cheques for players, agents, managers and FIFA bosses. Serious fans may see this as a cynical exploitation of the game they love, but the public at large just want to buy in to brand Football.

But you don’t need the golden tongue of a poet to appreciate that, consciously or unconsciously, football has evolved into an athletic metaphor for the intangible delight and desolation of being alive. “Sport is more important than I ever gave it credit for, and athletes have a greater significance in everyday life than ninety-nine per cent of windbag politicians,” wrote the sports journalist, Duncan Hamilton, in his memoir of Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, “Red Smith, the best sports writer of his generation and most others, believed that “sport is life” – and I wouldn’t disagree. It can move people to rapture, like a glorious spring day. It can persuade people to identify with it, and with those who participate in it, in a way that few other things can. It matters. It stays with us like the characters from a great novel.”

But he doesn’t buy the idea that football fans are finding a release for their transcendent longings when they sit down in front of the box with a beer and a bowl of nachos:

Football has also acquired a metaphysical dimension in the contemporary mind. It has become a cliche to say that as “the Sea of Faith” began “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” so football filled the spiritual void and provided religious consolation. According to the late Catalan writer, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, football is “a post modern religion, in that it is perfectly in tune with the commercial needs of mankind, intrinsically linked to business and consumerism. Its cathedrals are stadiums, its gods footballers, its faithful the millions of fans who not only participate in this ritual every matchday, but practise their faith on a daily basis, thinking about and reflecting on the deeds of their gods.”

This kind of idea and language is culturally popular, but it is also fundamentally flawed and excessive. Football’s horizons remain narrow and earthbound, whereas religion seeks that which is transcendent and ministers the grace for people to break free from the gravitational pull of earthly powers to seek the heavens. Football is no religion.

But football can be religious. Players making the sign of the cross as they come out onto a pitch. Players gesturing to heaven and some higher power when they score a goal. The Brazilian, Kaká (currently playing for Real Madrid) famously removing his jersey to reveal an “I Belong to Jesus” t-shirt and using the final whistle as a call to prayer. “God Is Faithful” is stitched onto the tongues of his boots and he persuaded teammates to reveal “Jesus Loves You” t-shirts in the postmatch celebration following Brazil’s 4–1 win over Argentina in the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup final. Kaká is evangelical about his faith. He lives on a win and a prayer.

What does this link between football and religion tell us? Exaggerating the importance of this link can only leads to skewed judgements. For every footballer with religious leanings, there will be countless others who simply enjoy the rituals of the changing room and the superstitious charms that they hope will bring them victory. As with any group of people, some will be religious, some nominally or culturally so and some not at all. If there is anything to learn from such links, it is that football has acquired a defining role in our cultural behaviour and attitudes. These coming weeks in South Africa are about to prove that.

I’m not sure about this critique of ‘football as religion’. Religion is defined in terms of the search for a transcendent meaning, for whatever might take you beyond the limitations of earthly life. But if you see religion instead as a quest for ultimate meaning, a commitment to a goal that drives and defines your life, then it seems clear that this can be found any number of non-transcendent pursuits – including football. It may be that the pursuit at hand is ‘ultimately not ultimate’ (forgive the awkward phrase), but like any idol it can act in the present frame of reference as a thing of religious significance.

I must go back and read Nick Hornby’s fabulous Fever Pitch, which convinced me at the time that football is indeed a modern substitute for religion, at least sociologically and psychologically – even if the transcendent longings are not ultimately fulfilled.

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