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Archive for March, 2011

It’s not a great film. And, despite what the reviewers say, the 3D cinematography doesn’t work – the images lose their sharpness, the focus of the eyes never quite stabilises, and you constantly feel that you are in a cinema struggling to see the screen rather than in a French cave dancing with your paleolithic ancestors. (See my previous rant about 3D cinema and the decline of human civilisation.)

But Werner Herzog’s new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still a wonderful way of experiencing the Chauvet paintings ‘at first hand’. I think I’ve seen reproductions of them before (although perhaps I’m muddling them up with the images from Lascaux). They are astonishingly beautiful. The YouTube trailer above gives you some good glimpses of the main walls – and without the 3D!

What struck me in the film was their size. They are huge! The fact that there was no space to hide the film crew actually helped, because you kept being reminded of the scale of the paintings – the sound man bobbing in and out of the images with his boom like the stone-age hunters with their spears.

In one sense it’s breathtaking that the images are so old. That’s what makes them interesting – beyond their artistic merit alone. This is just one manifestation of ‘the cognitive leap’, when modern human beings ‘emerged’ (whatever that means) onto the scene, and began to paint, decorate, adorn themselves, make musical instruments, honour their dead, and carve those well-known Venus figurines.

Yet in another sense, why should it astonish us? It seems to be the beginnings of what we would call civilisation, or modern human culture, but as far as we know these Cro-Magnons, these Early Modern Humans, were just like us – the same species, the same human nature. And human beings paint.

So the fact that you walk into a cave hidden for 30,000 years and discover a painting of a horse that looks just like one of Franz Marc’s (one of my favourite painters) shouldn’t surprise us. But it does. And they are astonishing. As is Franz Marc.

Children's interpretations of Franz Marc

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Last night I filled in the 2011 Census form. It was a fairly quick and boring procedure, punctuated with one or two unexpected moments of existential and theological crisis.

Question 15. Not ‘What is your national identity?’ but ‘How would you describe your national identity?’ I automatically filled in British rather than English, not because I feel more British than English, but because I’m used to filling in forms that want to know the objective/legal answer, i.e. what is on your passport. But then I realised when I checked over the whole form at the end that it said Tick all that apply (it made all the double-checking I’ve ever done in my life worth it!) So it now says English plus British; but the psychoanalysts and sociologists interpreting my input will never know which I ticked first – which is the most telling point – unless they are reading this blog.

Question 16. ‘What is your ethnic group?’ rather than ‘How would you describe your ethnic group’ – as if national identity (Q15) is something subjective and self-chosen but ethnicity (Q16) is something more objective. Again, I struggled here. I’m 1/4 English, 1/4 Scottish and 1/2 Chinese in terms of ethnic roots. The only given box I could tick was B#3 White and Asian – but the Chinese element is important to me (subjectively) and makes me quite distinct from someone from India or Japan (objectively).

So I ticked B#4 Any other Mixed/multiple ethnic background, and wrote in ‘White and Chinese’. But then I realised I could equally have put ‘Chinese and White’ in that box, or I could have gone onto box C#4 instead (Any other Asian background) and written the same answer there (‘Chinese and White’). And objectively speaking I am just as much Chinese and White as White and Chinese.

I’m torn here. I want to give both answers, to show that I am not giving more objective weight to the Chinese or White – in terms of ethnicity. But I am only allowed to choose one section. And if I tick both, as a sort of existential protest about the limitations being imposed on my self-understanding, then will I have to pay the fine, or do the whole form again?

Question 20. ‘What is your religion?’ A voluntary question, that has only one box for ‘Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)’. I understand how it’s a good thing, sociologically and theologically, not to treat these Christian groups as different religions; but it would have been interesting to know the details for C of E, Catholic, Protestant, etc – if you are going to do this kind of question; or to add an extra line to say ‘What Christian group (or church or denomination…) do you belong to?’ or whatever.

Question 35. Now we move into theology proper. Q34 was easy – I put ‘Roman Catholic priest’ as my job title. Even though it is much more than a job (it’s a vocation, a calling, a part of who I am) – I think this is a fair stab at what they are asking. But Q35 asks Briefly describe what you do in your main job. How do you do that in 34 characters? That’s characters not words! I wanted to get some great theological summary of the priestly ministry in here, but in the end I copped out and put ‘pastoral ministry’. Now, after reflection, I think I should have put ‘priestly ministry’, because many laity are involved in pastoral ministry; but it’s too late.

Question 37. This is the one that brought me to a state of existential and theological paralysis (you can tell it was quite a traumatic evening). ‘What is the main activity of your employer or business?’ Saving souls? Heaven? Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord? Sanctification? Building the Kingdom? Filling the pews? 

Instead, I ducked, and gave a bureaucratic answer, as if to address the slightly different question of ‘what kind of “business” is your employer involved in?’ – and I wrote ‘Religion’. I know. It’s weak. It’s a lost opportunity for witness. And it’s not really true. The Church isn’t about ‘doing’ religion; it’s about faith, hope, charity; adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication; justice, peace and love; the worship of God and the witness of life; the renewal and recapitulation of all things in Christ; and many, many other beautiful things – none of which made my census form.

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Why should we keep the Sabbath? I know, because it’s there in the Bible; and it’s not just a throwaway line, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. But what is the reason given there for keeping the Sabbath?

It hadn’t struck me until morning meditation in the chapel yesterday that the two accounts of the giving of the Decalogue in the Old Testament offer two quite different explanations of why we should keep the Sabbath.

First, in the book of Exodus (Ch. 20), it’s about God and creation:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. [But why?] For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Then, in the book of Deuteronomy (Ch. 5), it’s about the Jewish people and their liberation from slavery in Egypt:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. [But why?] Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So there are two different but complimentary meanings presented here. First, the day of rest tells us something about the nature of God himself. He is not just the creator, busying himself with his activity on behalf of the world – represented by the Six Days of Creation. He is not just defined in terms of his relationship with creation in general, or with us human beings in particular. He is also a God of rest, who exists in himself, and – as it were –  for himself. His being, his self-sufficiency, comes ‘before’ his activity; and in the creation story his being, his resting, is the climax and fulfilment of that activity – although in God himself ‘being’ and ‘activity’ are all one, because there is a fundamental simplicity at the heart of everything that God is and does.

So the Sabbath, the day of rest, builds into the very rhythm of our week, and so into the structure of our very existence, a proper understanding of God. It shows us that his nature, and our ultimate destiny as sharing in that nature, is something completely beyond time, beyond temporal activity, beyond all the striving that we associate with a purposeful life.

But second, the day of rest, as presented in Deuteronomy, tells us something about our own nature as human beings – in so far as the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt points to a more universal truth about the human condition. In this context, the Sabbath is a reminder that whatever freedom we have now is actually a gift – whether this freedom is social, political, moral, spiritual, religious, etc. We are free because God’s goodness, his mighty hand and outstretched arm, have given us this freedom – by creating us in the first place, and then by stepping into history to renew it. And it is our duty not just to remember this with thanksgiving, but also to use that freedom for good, and in a way that ultimately leads us back to the God who called us into freedom into the first place.

So the Sabbath ‘forces’ us to remember that we don’t belong to ourselves or completely determine the meaning of our own lives. Our life is given. Our freedom, to the extent that we can discover and live it, is given. That weekly moment of rest and letting go is in one sense a restriction, because we can’t do everything we would like to do; but in another sense it is the very foundation of all our activity and striving, because it helps us remember that this freedom is not something we can create for ourselves. There are many ways of making the Sabbath holy, but the primary meaning of the Sabbath lies in ‘consecrating’ the whole day, in setting it apart from the rest of the week.

Of course there are many other meanings to the Sabbath, many other ways in which it must be kept holy; and for Christians it is given a radical new meaning in the light of the Resurrection. These thoughts arise just from reflecting on the explanations given in the Decalogue. The Sabbath is about God and about us as human beings. It’s both a theology and an anthropology. We lay hold of all this simply by the discipline of letting go – as far as possible – of work and shopping for one day a week…

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The Guardian’s comment is free turned five last week. It’s a good site to bookmark if you haven’t come across it before; there is always something interesting or surprising. And even though the readers’ comments at the bottom can be a bit predictable, there is enough variety in the subject matter to keep it fresh.

But then the whole point of the site is to allow not just comment, but comment on the comment. So it was a delight to find this piece, by Joe Moran, on the topic of marginalia – the original form of the comment box.

I am almost neurotically law-abiding, but there is one area of life where I am an outlaw, beyond the pale, a fugitive from justice. I only do it in pencil, and sometimes I remember to rub it out, but … I write in library books. Those spaces down the sides of the page seem so inviting that the impulse to anoint them with scribbles is irresistible. History is on my side: until the 19th century books were often used as scrap paper, and few people had qualms about scrawling on a pristine copy. No jury in the land would convict me. Books are meant to be written on.

Is such annotation a dying art in our online era? Most ebook readers allow you to highlight text and take notes, but there isn’t the same aesthetic of columns of alluring white space. On the other hand the web has whetted our appetite for sharing reading experiences. Amazon has just introduced a facility for the Kindle which posts your marginalia online so others can read it. Social reading websites like BookGlutton, where you can attach notes for other readers of the same book, have been around for a while.

You could argue that this impulse is really a return to the great age of marginalia, which the literary scholar HJ Jackson identifies as lasting from about 1750 to 1820. The practice then was widespread and communal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the word “marginalia”, wrote his own marginal comments with an audience in mind – and even published some of them. “You will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic,” he wrote, a little smugly, in one of Charles Lamb’s books. Many of today’s social networking sites similarly create a kind of ongoing collective commentary – not just on books, but on the world in general.

And yet there is something missing from this electronic marginalia. First, it seems so ephemeral. Pencil marks left on a page will last several lifetimes, perhaps as long as the paper itself. Public Notes, on Kindle, are less tangible and, even if someone is archiving them, are likely to be unreadable in future because of hardware or software changes. The most basic motive for writing marginalia is surely to create a sense of ownership: children often write their names over and over again in books. You can’t do that with a Kindle.

Second, this public note-taking seems too much like performance. For the last two centuries, marginalia has been semi-private, almost furtive, a silent communion with the author or the unknown reader who might pick up the book, secondhand, a generation later. Marginalia is, by definition, something on the margins – undervalued, overlooked.

Do you write in your own books? Do you write in other people’s books? Is it the same putting notes on your Kindle?

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If you are looking for online resources in bioethics, here are a couple of useful sites (following on from my recent post about the distortion of language in bioethical reporting).

Dolly the Cloned Sheep

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a bioethics page with links to various articles and downloadable pamphlets. The topics include: stem cell research, cloning, genetic enhancement, IVF, eugenics, human dignity, reproductive technology, etc.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre is the main Christian bioethics institute in Britain. The resources are here (articles, publications, newsletters, etc); and there is a big list of articles and links here at their old Linacre Centre site (I’m not sure if all these articles have been moved over yet).

I also happened to come across this very informative blog last week called Mary Meets Dolly, “A Catholic’s Guide to Genetics, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology”. The author, Rebecca Taylor, has her own page of links (I can’t recommend them all as I haven’t looked at them all yet…). And this is from her ‘About’ page:

My name is Rebecca Taylor.  I am a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and more importantly, a practicing Catholic. I have been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years. I have been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life.

All of this began several years ago when I was discussing stem cells and cloning with an older gentleman at a family party.  He was very knowledgeable about biotechnology, but was surprised about many little-known and quite misleading facts.  He asked where I had gathered those facts, and I told him I was reading every pertinent scientific reference I could get my hands on. He looked me in the eye and said, “Young lady, it is not good enough to read, you must do something!”  I found out later he was a former U.S. congressman from California.

Indeed, I began to notice a general lack of understanding about contemporary issues in genetics, genetic engineering, and reproductive technology, issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the future of humanity, for good or ill.  I work with professionals whose business is medical genetics, and even they are confused about the pragmatics, not to mention the ethics, surrounding cloning, stem cells, and recent advances in genetic engineering.  If professionals could be confused, I feared that the average Catholic would feel lost amidst the scientific jargon and, unfortunately, the hype.

I decided to start marymeetsdolly.com to try and provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary so they could be more conversant with the issues proffered by the newest of the “brave new world” movements.

With this website, I hope to take what I have learned (through months of studying the technologies and ethical stances involved) and explain the advances and the issues in terms the person-on-the-street can understand.  With the help of my father, a theologian, I hope to juxtapose and illuminate today’s genetic research and engineering with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

At this site, Catholics can find information to better understand stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and much more.  The Topics section has articles covering various technologies; what is moral, what is immoral.  It also has articles on pertinent topics by other authors.  The Books section has a reading list for those who want to do their own research.  The Links page has a list of websites through which one can keep up to date in this rapidly changing field.  The Glossary page lists important terms and their definitions.  The Church Teaching page has official Catholic Church teaching on reproductive issues and the sanctity of human life.  The Blog has my daily thoughts on new developments and a chance for you to respond.  And my favorite, the Quotes section, has all the verbal gems I have found that say it all.  

On the question of language, see her post about whether our understanding of when human life begins is a matter of belief or of knowledge.

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There is a long interview in last week’s Observer with Woody Allen by Carole Cadwalladr. The reviews of his latest film are so bad that I don’t think I’ll bother seeing it (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). [Warning: Minor plot spoilers follow]


One of the themes that comes up in the interview, yet again, is Allen’s atheism. I’ve always admired his honesty, and the way he won’t sidestep the starkness implicit in a Godless universe, he won’t offer any facile consolations. Here are his latest reflections, framed by Cadwalladr’s comments:

They are all here [in the film], the familiar subjects of Allen-esque despair. The feeling, as Alvy Singer explains at the beginning of Annie Hall, that life is nasty, brutish and cruel. But also too short. That death dominates life. And that nothing works out, ever. It’s not a film a young man could have made. “No. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I was young. It requires years of disillusionment, this is true,” he says. The only happy characters in the film are the deluded ones, and the more powerfully deluded they are, the happier they seem. Helena, who takes up with a fortune teller and dabbles with the occult, is grinning like a loon by the end of the film.

“But then I’ve always felt that if the delusion works, it’s great. I always think that people who have religious faith are always happier than people who do not. The problem is that it’s not something you can adopt. It has to come naturally.”

There’s a brilliant sequence, which afterwards I think is the possibly the least romantic moment in any film ever, in which Sally, played by Naomi Watts, young, beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage, has a moment with her sexy, Spanish boss, Antonio Banderas. He obviously has feelings for her, as she does for him, and if she were a character in any other film, they’d eventually be together. Or maybe apart, but in a doomed, romantic way. Not here, though. It just doesn’t happen, and they end up not together in the most banal of ways: the timing’s off. She hesitates, and he falls in love with her friend instead. She takes consolation in her career but then that’s thwarted too. It’s a level of realism, the everyday realism of everyday life, that rarely reaches the screen.

In Woody Allen’s universe there is no reason why some things happen and others not. His atheism allows no delusions of that kind, but what about age, I ask him? Do you, like Alfie, resist hearing that you’re old?

“I do, I resist. I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They’re tricks that I’ve done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it’s foolish. But you’re creating them because they’re not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can’t be solved, and they’re a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.”

“Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think ‘I make my luck’. And you want to keep telling yourself that you’re in control, but you’re not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy’s bus.”

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‘Activism’, in the Catholic spiritual tradition, doesn’t refer to a political commitment or to an energetic involvement in a particular project. It’s about the danger, psychologically and spiritually, of getting over-invested in the work that we are doing, of work becoming a compulsion, of forgetting the larger purposes of the work at hand and the larger meaning of life that brings us to do this particular work.

We talk about someone being ‘driven’. It can be an attractive virtue if it points to a certain purposefulness and energy; but it literally means that someone is no longer in the driving seat, they have lost hold of the steering wheel; and the car – the goal, the project, the activity – is doing the driving itself. Another word for this is workaholism.

I’ve just finished re-reading one of the spiritual books that has helped me most in my life, The Soul of the Apostolate, by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, OCSO. It’s first of all a book of theology, about how any apostolic work needs to be rooted in Christ, and how easy it is for a feverish activism to displace one’s spiritual life.

The ‘heresy of good works’ is not the idea that good works are important, it’s the habit of trying to work for the Lord without depending on prayer and the grace of God. It’s when the exterior life is so all-consuming that the interior life is pushed to the side, or squeezed out completely.

But the book is also full of much wisdom at the purely practical/psychological level, about how to keep a work-life balance, the importance of having an inner-detachment from what we are doing, etc. It’s a kind of early self-help/management guru book.

Chautard quotes Geoffrey of Auxerre writing about his master, St Bernard:

Totus primum sibi et sic totus omnibus

Meaning, more or less:

He belonged, first of all, entirely to himself, and thus he belonged entirely to all people

And then he quotes St Bernard himself, writing to Pope Eugenius III.

I do not tell you to withdraw completely from secular occupations. I only exhort you not to throw yourself entirely into them. If you are a man belonging to everyone, belong also to yourself. Otherwise what good would it do you to save everybody else, if you were to be lost yourself? Keep something, then, for yourself, and if everyone comes to drink at your fountain, do not deprive yourself of drinking there too. What! Must you alone go thirsty? Always begin with the consideration of yourself. It would be vain for you to lavish care upon others, and neglect yourself. May all your reflections, then, begin with yourself and end also with yourself. [p42]

This apparent focus on oneself is not a call to selfishness but to the kind of interior recollection and self-awareness that allows you to be truly selfless and at the service of others, because you are not driven but actively giving yourself to the work and to others, and actually having something of yourself to give.

I’ve got an old Tan copy of the book, which is reprinted by St Benedict Press and available at Amazon.

There is a book called Inner Strength for Active Apostles by Chautard published by Sophia Press, which I think is a slightly simplified and modernised version of the same book – on Amazon here. I haven’t read it, but seen it in a bookshop. From what I know of other Sophia Press books it should be very good, and perhaps slightly more accessible than the original version (just because some of the theological language is quite heavy).

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