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Archive for April, 2011

Pope John Paul II has been a huge inspiration for me in my faith and my vocation as a priest. I was at seminary at the English College in Rome, from 1992 to 1997, and the Sunday timetable was designed so that we could get to St Peter’s for the Pope’s Angelus address between Mass and lunch.

It was wonderful to wander down to St Peter’s Square and join the crowds, especially if you had visitors staying with you; not just to see him – as a kind of tourist event or cultural icon – but to listen to him and above all to pray with him. The sense of ‘being in communion’ with the worldwide Church through your prayerful communion with St Peter’s successor was very strong.

Two personal memories stand out. Each year we had a different pastoral placement in Rome – some pastoral project that we got involved in once a week. One of these, for me, was working in a youth centre near St Peter’s. One week the team was invited to the Pope’s early morning Mass in his private chapel. We arrived all excited, like fans wanting to gawp at a celebrity, but we were suddenly caught up in an atmosphere of profound stillness and contemplation. He was there praying before the tabernacle. That’s all. But it felt as if he was carrying the needs of the whole Church in his heart, and as if the mystery and holiness of God were a living reality for him.

I think he was a contemplative, who lived continually in the presence of God. I was so keen not to reduce this prayerful encounter to an anecdote that I passed by the chance to buy the photo of our brief meeting afterwards – which I regret deeply now!

The other memory is the World Youth Day that took place in Rome in 2000. He was elderly and already quite frail, but when he came out to meet the young people – nearly two million of them – you could see how energised and open he was to them.

He was like a father, who somehow communicated a genuine love for everyone there, an almost personal concern, and a longing for them to know the beauty of Christ and the beauty of a life that is given to Christ. It seemed to touch everyone personally in a profound way.

He was a great teacher, a great leader; but it’s these personal memories of his goodness and holiness that seem to stand out for people – even those who never met him.

I don’t have the photo from that ‘private Mass’, just the memory; but I’ve got his Apostolic Blessing on the wall beside my desk, from the day of my ordination in 1998 – which makes up for it!

If you want some further reading about the beatification, here are some links to John Allen’s recent posts and articles:

NCR postings

Other media outlets

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There is some controversy about Pope John Paul’s beatification this coming weekend. Is it too quick? Can we really understand the significance of someone’s pontificate when we are still so close to it? Surely he took some false steps and made some decisions that with hindsight seem to have been unwise?

I think it’s important to remember that when you beatify a person you are not beatifying every decision they ever made. The Church makes a judgment about their holiness, about their love for God and for their neighbour, and knows enough to say that their deepest intentions were good and their underlying motivations were pure – even if, in their human frailty and weakness, they made mistakes. You can honour a saint without having to pretend that you agree with every opinion they held or every choice they made.

This thoughtful piece by John Thavis explains how someone is beatified for their holiness – for the way their faith, hope and charity have shone out in the world and touched the lives of other.

As church officials keep emphasizing, Pope John Paul II is being beatified not for his performance as pope, but for how he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. When the Vatican’s sainthood experts interviewed witnesses about the Polish pontiff, the focus of their investigation was on holiness, not achievement.

What emerged was a spiritual portrait of Pope John Paul, one that reflected lifelong practices of prayer and devotion, a strong sense of his priestly vocation and a reliance on faith to guide his most important decisions. More than leadership or managerial skills, these spiritual qualities were the key to his accomplishments–both before and after his election as pope in 1978.

From an early age, Karol Wojtyla faced hardships that tested his trust in God. His mother died when he was 9, and three years later he lost his only brother to scarlet fever. His father died when he was 20, and friends said Wojtyla knelt for 12 hours in prayer and sorrow at his bedside.

His calling to the priesthood was not something that happened overnight. It took shape during the dramatic years of World War II, after a wide variety of other experiences: Among other things, he had acted with a theater group, split stone at a quarry, written poetry and supported a network that smuggled Jews to safety.

Wojtyla’s friends of that era always remembered his contemplative side and his habit of intense prayer. A daily Mass-goer, he cultivated a special devotion to Mary. In 1938, he began working toward a philosophy degree at the University of Krakow. A year later, the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland left the country in ruins.

During the German occupation, Wojtyla began attending weekly meetings called the “living rosary” led by Jan Tyranowski, a Catholic layman who soon became his spiritual mentor. Tyranowski introduced him to the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, who would greatly influence the future pope. Wojtyla called Tyranowski an “apostle” and later wrote of him: “He showed us God much more immediately than any sermons or books; he proved to us that God could not only be studied, but also lived.”

At a spiritual crossroads in 1942, Wojtyla entered Krakow’s clandestine theological seminary. In the pope’s 1996 book, “Gift and Mystery,” he remembered his joy at being called to the priesthood, but his sadness at being cut off from acquaintances and other interests. He said he always felt a debt to friends who suffered “on the great altar of history” during World War II, while he pursued his underground seminary studies.  As a seminarian, he continued to be attracted to monastic contemplation. Twice during these years he petitioned to join the Discalced Carmelites but was said to have been turned away with the advice: “You are destined for greater things.”

He was ordained four years later, as Poland’s new communist regime was enacting restrictions on the Catholic Church. After two years of study in Rome, he returned to Poland in 1948 and worked as a young pastor. From the beginning, he focused much of his attention on young people, especially university students — the beginning of a lifelong pastoral interest. Students would join him on hiking and camping trips, which always included prayer, outdoor Masses and discussions about the faith.

Father Wojtyla earned a doctorate in moral theology and began teaching at Lublin University, at the same time publishing articles and books on ethics and other subjects. In 1958, at age 38, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Poland, becoming the youngest bishop in Poland’s history. He became archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and played a key role in the Second Vatican Council, helping to draft texts on religious liberty and the church in the modern world.

He was elected Pope in 1978, and it didn’t stop him deepening his spiritual life.

Pope John Paul’s private prayer life was intense, and visitors who attended his morning Mass described him as immersed in an almost mystical form of meditation. He prayed the liturgy of the hours, he withdrew for hours of silent contemplation and eucharistic adoration, and he said the rosary often — eventually adding five new luminous mysteries to this traditional form of prayer…

Pope John Paul canonized 482 people, more than all his predecessors combined. Although the Vatican was sometimes humorously referred to as a “saint factory” under Pope John Paul, the pope was making a very serious effort to underline what he called the “universal call to holiness” — the idea that all Christians, in all walks of life, are called to sanctity. “There can never be enough saints,” he once remarked.

He was convinced that God sometimes speaks to the world through simple and uneducated people. St. Faustina was one, and he also canonized St. Padre Pio, the Italian mystic, and St. Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant who had visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The world knows Pope John Paul largely because of his travels to 129 countries. For him, they were spiritual journeys. As he told his top advisers in 1980: “These are trips of faith and of prayer, and they always have at their heart the meditation and proclamation of the word of God, the celebration of the Eucharist and the invocation of Mary.”

Pope John Paul never forgot that he was, above all, a priest. In his later years, he said repeatedly that what kept him going was not the power of the papacy but the spiritual strength that flowed from his priestly vocation. He told some 300,000 young people in 1997: “With the passing of time, the most important and beautiful thing for me is that I have been a priest for more than 50 years, because every day I can celebrate Holy Mass!”

In his final years, the suffering brought on by Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and other afflictions became part of the pope’s spiritual pilgrimage, demonstrating in an unusually public way his willingness to embrace the cross. With his beatification, the church is proposing not a model pope but a model Christian, one who witnessed inner holiness in the real world, and who, through words and example, challenged people to believe, to hope and to love.

This is the man who is being beatified this weekend.

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If, despite the Resurrection, you still need a boost, try these ‘Ten keys to happier living’ from the Action for Happiness campaign.

It’s easy to mock this kind of project (as banal, twee, patronising, ineffective, etc) and I don’t know what effect it will actually have – perhaps about as much as those posters on the buses that tell you not to eat smelly food or play loud music - but as you know I’m a sucker for these self-help summaries, and I like the fact that it’s an attempt to question why the materials gains we have made in the West over the last two generations have not increased our happiness.

It’s happiness as self-fulfilment by not seeking self-fulfilment; self-help by not seeking to help the self but by looking beyond the self; happiness as something that stems from your subjective approach to your situation and not just from the objective facts about the situation into which you are unwillingly thrust. Lots of truth here; together with the risk of Pelagianism – salvation by personal striving.

Take a look at the accompanying video: 

Here is their understanding of happiness:

We all want to live happy and fulfilling lives and we want the people we love to be happy too. So happiness matters to all of us.

Happiness is about our lives as a whole: it includes the fluctuating feelings we experience everyday but also our overall satisfaction with life. It is influenced by our genes, upbringing and our external circumstances – such as our health, our work and our financial situation. But crucially it is also heavily influenced by our choices – our inner attitudes, how we approach our relationships, our personal values and our sense of purpose.

There are many things in life that matter to us – including health, freedom, autonomy and achievement. But if we ask why they matter we can generally give further answers – for example, that they make people feel better or more able to enjoy their lives. But if we ask why it matters if people feel better, we can give no further answer. It is self-evidently desirable. Our overall happiness – how we feel about our lives – is what matters to us most.

In recent years there have been substantial advances in the science of well-being with a vast array of new evidence as to the factors that affect happiness and ways in which we can measure happiness more accurately. We now have an opportunity to use this evidence to make better choices and to increase well-being in our personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

The research shows that we need a change of priorities, both at the societal level and as individuals. Happiness and fulfilment come less from material wealth and more from relationships; less from focussing on ourselves and more from helping others; less from external factors outside our control and more from the way in which we choose to react to what happens to us.

See our Recommended Reading list for useful books which summarise some of the recent scientific findings in an accessible way.

And here is the motivation of the movement:

Action for Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier society. We want to see a fundamentally different way of life where people care less about what they can get for themselves and more about the happiness of others.

We are bringing together like-minded people from all walks of life, drawing on the latest scientific research and backed by leading experts from the fields of psychology, education, economics, social innovation and beyond.

Members of the movement make a simple pledge: to try to create more happiness in the world around them through the way they approach their lives. We provide practical ideas to enable people to take action in different areas of their lives – at home, at work or in the community. We hope many of our members will form local groups to take action together.

We have no religious, political or commercial affiliations and welcome people of all faiths (or none) and all parts of society. We were founded in 2010 by three influential figures who are passionate about creating a happier society: Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon.

What do you think? The last part of the ‘scientifically proven’ wish-list is especially interesting: ‘Meaning: Be part of something bigger’. Does it matter what that something is? Or whether it is true?

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It’s the second year that the Wintershall team has staged the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Last year I posted about how powerful it was to see this religious drama unfolding in the secular spaces of central London – the pigeons, the buses, Nelson’s Column towering above, Big Ben in the distance, and the narrative punctuated by the scream of police sirens every few minutes. This is exactly what Jerusalem must have been like in the madness of Holy Week two thousand years ago. Well, take out Nelson and the buses and Big Ben and the sirens…

The play was even better than last year. It wasn’t just the glorious weather – although that certainly helped; or the screen – which made a huge difference. It felt tighter, more focussed. I don’t know if the script had been changed, or if it was just because the staging area seemed more restricted, or because it was the second year.

One or two moments stood out for me. First, when Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross (just like last year) his wife raced after him – I presume it was his wife, sitting beside him in the audience. Or maybe I just missed this last year.

She was terrified that her husband was being dragged into the violence and mayhem of the Jerusalem/London streets – which he was. She circled round the edge of the crowd, desperate to help her husband and spare him this ordeal, not knowing where it would end, terrified that he might be crucified himself if he arrived at the place of execution with the cross on his shoulders. It was a lovely touch.

It reminded me that Simon of Cyrene – and all the others involved – are not just ‘characters’ who exist in some kind of suspended biblical animation, they are people with relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbours. It made me think of the relatives of all those who have even been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and forgotten – those who perhaps live with the agony far longer than those who perpetuate the crime and even those who suffer it. The Gospel narrative is so much more than the people who are actually mentioned by name.

The second moment was unintentional. When Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, and spoke to Mary Magdalene, the audience started clapping! It was so not appropriate – it completely broke the dramatic spell – but at another level it was so beautiful, and so British! Jesus appears; the Son of God comes among us in all his glory; the Risen Saviour is in our midst. We’ve got to do something! We’d like to scream or weep or fall flat on our faces in worship and adoration. But we’re British, and we don’t do these things in public, and the only visible display of approval or mild emotion we are able to make around strangers is to clap, politely, as if we are applauding a boundary at Lord’s or a dull after-dinner speech. It was marvellous. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead – and we clapped!

Last year I wrote about Jesus’s exit at the end of the play:

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

This year, a similar thing happened, but because of the weather the crowd was thicker and in no mood to let Jesus go. When he got to the top of the steps in front of the National Gallery, as Archbishop Vincent was saying thank you to the organisers, dozens of people crowded round him – just happy to see him close up.

And what did they want? Photos! So there was Jesus, smiling for the cameras – holding a child who had been lifted up for him; then with his arms around some friends as they peered into the lens; then standing in the middle of a large group for the camera. He was happy and obliging; in no rush; with a huge grin on his face. Obviously enjoying the people, and enjoying their joy in meeting him.

At first I thought: the play is over, the spell is broken, and the actor is quite rightly taking his bow. But then I thought: No, this is still very real. If Jesus were walking through Trafalgar Square today, would we be taking photos? Of course we would! Or put it the other way round, if people had had cameras back then, ordinary people who loved him and were delighted to catch a glimpse of him, would Jesus have marched away with a frown on his face, telling them to take life more seriously and to let go of these worldly gadgets? I don’t think so. He was, above all, kind. He met people where they were. He loved the ordinary and sometimes stupid things that they loved – as long as they were without sin. He would have stopped for photos.

Seeing this actor smile for the cameras – a warm, genuine, affectionate smile – didn’t create any disjunction in my mind with the Jesus he had just been playing. Quite the opposite – it helped me realise something about the kindness and humanity of this Jesus, and made me wonder even more about what it would be like if he were to walk the streets today.

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James Delingpole started blogging about two years ago. He has come to the conclusion that it is:

far more addictive, expensive, energy-sapping and injurious to health than crack cocaine.

Part of the problem is that his Telegraph blog has been enormously successful:

I’m not boasting. It really is popular. Obviously I don’t always get the 1.5 million hits I had when the Climategate story broke. But in an average week the number of hits I get is roughly twice the circulation of The Spectator, and in a good one bigger than those of the Guardian and the Independent put together.

And the reason for this is that… I have a talent for blogging. Admittedly I’m no use for gossip or inside-track Westminster analysis. What I can do though, better than most, is that mix of concentrated rage, flippant wit, irreverence, bile and snarkiness which many blog readers seem to think defines the art.

Again, I say this not at all in order to boast. Discovering in middle age that you have a rare gift for deriding idiocies on the internet is like suddenly finding you’re the world’s most accurate lichen-spotter or first-rate squirrel-juggler or that you can identify aircraft just by looking at the contrails. It’s not something that makes you go, ‘Thanks, God!’

Some may think this ungrateful of me. After all, thanks to my blog, I’m at least ten times more famous than I used to be — with readers all over the world who think I’m just great. But what most people don’t understand (only bloggers do, in fact) is the terrible emotional, physical and financial price you pay for this privilege.

In Delingpole’s eyes, the success and the likelihood of burnout seem to be inseparable, because of the compulsive nature of the effective blogger.

There are only so many really first-class bloggers out there and unless they’re being paid to do it as a full-time job (which only a handful are) then they’re almost bound, as I just have, to retire hurt.

When I looked back at the last 18 months and wondered why I’d got so ill, the answer became pretty self-evident: it’s because every spare scrap of time that had hitherto gone on stuff like pottering in the garden, having the odd game of tennis, taking the kids to school, listening to music, reading, walking and relaxing, had been almost entirely swallowed up by blogging.

And I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy doing it: that’s the problem — it’s an addiction. As a blogger you can’t read a news story without wanting to comment on it. You’re constantly trawling your other favourite blogs to see whose story is worth following up. And when you’re not doing that, you’re busy catching up with the hundreds of comments below your latest post, trying not to be cut up by the hateful ones, while trying to respond encouragingly to the sympathetic ones. I love it. I love my readers (the nice ones anyway). But for the moment I love slightly more the idea of not driving myself to an early grave.

I don’t think I’m at the burnout stage yet.

You can see Delingpole’s website here, and his old Telegraph posts here.

There is a quick online test you can take to see how addicted to blogging you are – try it here. It only takes 30 seconds. The last question, for any blogger, is very funny indeed. I came out at an unimpressive 64%.

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Forgive the crude title, but this is the question I was discussing with a group of healthcare professionals recently. The specific topic was ‘brain death’, which is a phrase so widely used today that it hardly ever gets questioned. If someone’s brain is ‘dead’ then surely the person is dead as well? If the human brain has ceased to function then surely the human being has ceased to be alive? Not necessarily.

Much of the controversy is about organ transplantation. If you are going to take someone’s heart and give it to another person, you have to be sure that they are dead before you remove the heart, otherwise the act of removing the heart will be the very cause of their death. At least, that’s what most ethicists would say. The surgeon wants to know that he or she is taking a heart from a corpse and not killing a person. For many years, it has been assumed that if someone is certified ‘brain dead’ then they are definitely dead, and the transplant can go ahead. But this is being questioned more and more.

E. Christian Brugger, Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation, gives some background:

For purposes of organ removal, there are two commonly accepted sets of criteria for determining that death has occurred: the “cardio-respiratory” standard and the “neurological” standard (sometime referred to as the “whole brain death” criterion). The Uniform Determination of Death Act formulated in 1981 by the President’s Commission and widely adopted throughout the U.S. defines the first as the “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions”, and the second as “the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.” Although each criterion focuses upon a limited set of critical functions, the state of death of the entire human organism is thought to be able to be inferred by focusing on any one of them.

In his 2000 address, John Paul II says that when “rigorously applied” the neurological criterion “does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology.” He goes on to say “therefore a health-worker professionally responsible for ascertaining death can use these criteria [i.e., cardio-respiratory and neurological] in each individual case as the basis for arriving at that degree of assurance in ethical judgment which moral teaching describes as ‘moral certainty’” (No. 5).

In other words, the pope states that the neurological criterion seems to be a reliable basis for arriving at moral certitude that a person has died, which is required before harvesting vital organs can be legitimate.

But new questions have come up in the last few years.

Research has emerged in the past decade, especially by D. Alan Shewmon, professor of pediatric neurology at UCLA Medical Center and Consultant for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, challenging the reliability of the widely accepted neurological standard.

Recall the pope says that death consists in the “disintegration of that unity and integrated whole that is the personal self” (no. 4), and that we can identify biological signs that follow upon the disintegration. It seems to follow that an apparent absence of certain biological signs of somatic (bodily) disintegration can raise reasonable doubts as to whether death has occurred.

Shewmon’s research demonstrates conclusively that the bodies of some who are rightly diagnosed as suffering whole brain death express integrative bodily unity to a fairly high degree.

Brain dead bodies cannot breathe on their own since the involuntary breathing response is mediated by the brain stem, which has suffered complete destruction. So the bodies need to be sustained on a mechanical ventilator, which supports the body’s inspiration and expiration functions (breathing in and out). But with ventilator support, the bodies of brain dead patients have been shown to undergo respiration at the cellular level (involving the exchange of O2 and C02); assimilate nutrients (involving the coordinated activity of the digestive and circulatory systems); fight infection and foreign bodies (involving the coordinated interaction of the immune system, lymphatic system, bone marrow and microvasculature); maintain homeostasis (involving a countless number of chemicals, enzymes and macromolecules); eliminate, detoxify and recycle cell waste throughout the body; maintain body temperature; grow proportionately; heal wounds (i.e., the immunological defense of self against non-self); exhibit cardiovascular and hormonal stress responses to noxious stimuli such as incisions; gestate a fetus (including the gaining of weight, redistribution of blood flow favoring the uterus, and immunologic tolerance toward the fetus); and even undergo puberty.

The data is indisputable. Yet there is considerable disagreement on how to interpret the data with respect to the question of human death. Some scholars such as James M. DuBois, writing in the 2009 “Catholic Health Care Ethics” manual published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, refer to this long list of functions of brain dead bodies as “residual biological activities” no more expressive of life than the twitching of a lizard’s amputated tail. Others, including scientists and several philosophers and theologians who, with me, accept magisterial teaching, are less comfortable setting them aside as possible signs of true somatic integration.

Although Shewmon’s evidence certainly does not establish that brain dead bodies are the bodies of living (albeit highly disabled) persons, in my judgment, and in that of other competent scholars and scientists, it raises a reasonable doubt that excludes “moral certitude” that ventilator-sustained brain dead bodies are corpses.

It’s not an argument to say that a brain dead person is necessarily still alive – it simply suggests that there are serious doubts and questions about the meaning of brain death. And as long as such questions remain, we shouldn’t pretend that we have absolute confidence that a brain dead person is definitely dead. And if that’s the case, then there are implications for how we continue to care for such persons, and whether or not we transplant their organs.

If you want to follow this up, see this article on the Signs of Life conference on brain death in 2009; Pope Benedict’s 2008 address to a conference about organ transplantation; a Linacre Centre paper that touches on brain death, and another about the definition of death; and the NHS page about brain death, which includes the following uncritical remarks:

Brain death occurs when a person in an intensive care unit no longer has any activity in their brain stem, even though a ventilator is keeping their heart beating and oxygen circulating through their blood.

Once a brain stem death has occurred, the person is confirmed dead.

Unfortunately, there is no chance of a person recovering once their brain stem has died. This is because all of the core functions of the body have stopped working and can never be restarted. Although a ventilator can keep the heart beating, the person is effectively dead.

If permission has been given, organs can be removed for transplant and ventilation is withdrawn. Once ventilation is withdrawn, the heart stops beating within a few minutes.

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I’m sure you have all seen this sign by the escalators on the London Underground (or something similar elsewhere): Dogs must be carried on the escalator.

I remember one of my teachers analysing this in a class years ago – maybe it was English A-level, when we were looking at how the meaning of words is always dependent on the broader context. But here, even when you know the context, the meaning is still beautifully ambiguous.

Take a look at this hysterical video in which a heroic group of law-abiding citizens confronts the scandal of millions of travellers not carrying dogs on the escalators, and tries to enforce the London Transport bye-laws.

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It’s fifty years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin escaped the clutches of gravity and completed a single orbit of the earth. The Telegraph reports:

Fifty years ago [yesterday], an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space – taking the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind and spurring a humiliated America to race for the moon. The flight was limited to a single orbit due to concerns over how a human would cope with space travel, but despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list.

Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission.

In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.

Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).

The flight was fraught with drama. At one point the control room lost data transmission and problems involving the antennae put the shuttle into a much higher and riskier orbit than planned.

On re-entry, a glitch caused the ship to rotate swiftly and the landing capsule was slow to detach from the service module.

But Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 450 miles southeast of Moscow

The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes in total and made him a national hero.

On 14 April Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.

It was not until John Glenn’s flight on 20 February 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s earth-obiting feat.

It surprises me that space travel and extra-terrestrial colonisation don’t figure very much in the collective imagination. Why are they the preserve of science fiction enthusiasts instead of being on the horizon of our everyday dreams and adventures? If there is nowhere else to go but up and away, and if we are only at the very beginning of this scientific and historical journey, why are so few people interested in it? Even raising the question makes me feel slightly geeky.

The Economist has a slideshow entitled ‘The space-age future that never happened‘.

[Yesterday marked] 50 years since Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The dizzying pace of developments in aerospace technology—just 58 years separated the Wright Brothers’ first demonstration of powered flight from Gagarin’s trip into orbit—inspired plenty of optimistic speculation about what humanity’s future as a space-faring species might look like. This slideshow takes a look back at a future that was thought, in some quarters at least, to be just around the corner, and compares it with the reality of space exploration half a century after Gagarin’s flight.

Take a look here.

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One of my Lenten books this year is The Path of Prayer by St Theophan the Recluse. The language and ideas are very accessible, because it started life as four sermons to ordinary people.

One of the key themes is that the great heights of prayer, the great depths of mystical intimacy with God, can be found simply by saying our ordinary prayers with devotion and attention. The everyday prayers that we say (the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Psalms, etc) should be the ordinary means of discovering that union with God that we are searching for. I like this because it undermines the idea that there is some kind of split between ordinary vocal prayer, popular devotion, and contemplative prayer. They should all be, at heart, our standing in the presence of God, with hearts and minds recollected and open to him.

Here is just one passage from the first sermon. He is explaining how we should pray our ordinary daily prayers.

Simply enter into every word, then bring the meaning of each word down into your heart. That is, understand what you say, and then become aware of what you have understood. No further rules are necessary. These two, understanding and feeling – if they are properly carried out – ornament every offering of prayer with the highest quality, and this makes it fruitful and effective. For example, when you recite ‘and cleanse us from all impurities’, experience with feeling your impurity, desire to become pure, and pray to God in hope for it.

A ‘feeling’, in this Orthodox spiritual tradition, is not a fleeting emotion or mood (which we can’t control and which wouldn’t have much significance for our prayer) – it is one’s willingness to enter into the personal meaning of the truth that is being expressed in the words, to embrace this meaning with the whole heart and mind, instead of just keeping it at a distance as an abstract truth or a string of sounds at the very edge of consciousness.

St Theophan was one of the great Russian ‘starets’ of the nineteenth century, a theologian and bishop who became a monk and spent the last twenty years of his life in solitude as a hermit within his community. He is one of the masters of the spiritual life.

It seems that the book is out of print, but there is a big selection of passages from St Theophan about prayer here at the Orthodox Christian Information Society.

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If you are in a Cold War, worried that your enemy is going to destroy your military headquarters, including your main information hub, what do you do? Design an alternative information technology in which knowledge is diffused around the whole system and accessed through many different portals.

Paul Baran, who died a fortnight ago, was one of the two inventors of packet switching, without which we wouldn’t have the internet. Martin Campbell-Kelly explains:

In 1959 he joined Rand, which had been established in 1946 to do military research for the US Air Force. By the late 1950s, it was at the centre of nuclear politics and strategy. An issue of great concern at this time was the vulnerability of US military communications to a nuclear strike from Russia. If the command-and-control network was destroyed, the ability of the US to retaliate would be threatened.

Baran invented a futuristic solution to this problem in the form of a network held together by scores of small computers. Messages would be passed (“like a hot potato”) from one computer to the next towards its destination. Even if the network was massively damaged, the message would still get through. Another innovation was to chop all messages into small blocks so that they would not be delayed by long messages clogging the network. The blocks would arrive at their destination in a random order via different routes, and the computer at the destination end would reconstitute the original messages from the individual blocks.

Baran’s digital network proposal was at the cutting edge of computer technology and would have been hugely expensive to build. Numerous technical objections were raised by senior engineers steeped in the old analogue technology. In order to answer his critics, over the next few years Baran compiled a series of 11 reports. These were never secret, because it was believed that resilient networks were needed by friend and foe alike to resolve an escalating nuclear standoff. In the end, Baran failed to gain support for his proposal and, in 1968, with two other Rand alumni, he established the non-profit Institute for the Future, where he became an authority on the emerging digital networks.

Around this time Arpa was designing the Arpanet, the prototype of the internet, and their attention was drawn to the work of both Baran and the British computer scientist Donald Davies, who had developed similar ideas at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex. Davies (who was unaware of Baran’s work) called his system “packet switching”, and that name stuck, although the underlying concepts were the same in both proposals. Most importantly, both Baran and Davies had conducted and published detailed studies which established packet switching as a viable technology rather than just a bright idea. This enabled Arpa to commit to the system, and it remains the underlying technology of the internet.

It makes one reflect on how knowledge is stored and shared in other systems – in academia, in politics, in family life, in religions, etc.

Baran seems to have been very humble about his achievements, and keen to acknowledge the work of many others in building the internet. Katie Hafner writes:

In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence, and Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.

“The Internet is really the work of a thousand people,” he said in an interview in 2001.

“The process of technological developments is like building a cathedral,” he said in an interview in 1990. “Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’

“Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

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Upmarket agony-aunt Sally Brampton gives advice in yesterday’s Sunday Times to a woman who is having an affair with her therapist [the article is subscription only]. First of all she takes issue with the behaviour of the therapist himself.

If he really wanted to help, he would have maintained his position as an objective counsel, building your confidence, guiding you to emotional independence and establishing firm boundaries to keep you safe from bullies such as your husband and, indeed, controlling and manipulative men like him. Instead, he has increased your dependency by making you so reliant on him that you believe that you can’t cope on your own.

Then she gives a bit of psychological background to what’s going on.

It is not unusual for people to project their emotional needs and desires (known as transference) onto a therapist and develop something of a crush. That’s why it’s essential that therapists establish clear boundaries and encourage clients to do the same.

And this is the soundbite that really struck me, a quotation from Phillip Hodson of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy:

The boundaries are the therapy.

What a powerful thought, put very simply. In other words, in psychotherapy, and I presume in many other relationships that have an element of counselling or pastoral support, it’s the establishing of a healthy and non-dysfunctional relationship that is itself part of the healing. It’s not just what takes place within the relationship (the conversations, the advice, the support, the honesty). Nor is it just what takes place within the mind or heart of the client (the breakthroughs, the insights, the epiphanies, the decisions, the moments of self-realisation – invaluable though these may be).

It’s above all the fact that someone is simply in a relationship of some normality (albeit a professional one), being who they are, without some of the games and deceptions that might have damaged their relationships up to this point. Or perhaps it would be better to say: still, inevitably, with many of the same games and deceptions, but now in a way that they do not define or derail the relationship and the people involved. So the professional boundaries, which seem to be a means to an end, are part of the end itself – which is the healing of oneself through the healing of relationships.

I don’t know much about psychotherapy, so please do add any comments or corrections - but the phrase struck me: The boundaries are the therapy.

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Speaking of stone-age tribes and their cultures, take a look at this aerial video of an uncontacted tribe in the remote Amazonian rainforest.



Here is the blurb from the BBC:

An isolated tribe living in the Amazon rainforest on the Brazil-Peru border has been filmed for the first time.

Jose Carlos Meirelles, of Funai, said his government agency needs proof of the existence of “uncontacted” Indian communities in Brazil due to the threat posed by illegal logging and mining. They are known as “uncontacted” because they have only limited dealings with the outside world.

The BBC was allowed to film from 1km away using a stabilised zoom lens.

The pictures here are even more stunning – close-ups of the tribes-people; but I can’t reproduce them because of copyright.

It raises so many moral/philosophical questions. Is it right to contact them and ‘interfere’ with their way of life, and open their culture up to exploitation, alien diseases, etc? Is it right not to contact them, and hold them in a kind of cultural bubble? The shots of Meirelles flying over the village remind me of Ed Harris in The Truman Show, sitting in his control room overlooking the artificially constructed town in which Jim Carrey is brought up and observed, like an unknowing contestant in Big Brother.



Harris is far more sinister, because Carrey is literally imprisoned in this artificial world, unaware that the rest of the world is looking in through the hidden TV cameras. But when Meirelles speaks about preserving their freedom I’m not sure if he is truly liberating them or imposing on them a kind of cultural imprisonment. He says:

It’s important for humanity that these people exist. They remind us it’s possible to live in a different way. They’re the last free people on the planet.

I feel very ambivalent. There is a genuine care being expressed for the tribes-people and their way of life, and behind this the knowledge that the often ruthless logging industry is ready to roll in and flatten their entire culture. But the language reveals the mind of a scientist and anthropologist considering what the preservation of this pristine culture offers to us, the rest of humanity; making God-like decisions, literally ‘from on high’, about how to ‘protect’ a people and preserve them in isolation. I’m not judging – I’m genuinely ambivalent about what would be the best course of action.

On the other hand, at the Uncontacted Tribes website, the debate is framed in the terms not of enforced isolation, but of protecting the land from despoliation and of respecting the right of tribes-people to relate to outside cultures on their own terms:

TV presenter Bruce Parry of hit TV series Tribe said, ‘Protecting the land where uncontacted tribes live is of global importance. We have consistently failed to introduce them to our world without inflicting terrible traumas. It is for them to decide when they want to join our world. Not us.’

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘The illegal loggers will destroy this tribe. It’s vital that the Peruvian government stop them before time runs out. The people in these photos are self-evidently healthy and thriving. What they need from us is their territory protected, so that they can make their own choices about their future.

‘But this area is now at real risk, and if the wave of illegal logging isn’t stopped fast, their future will be taken out of their hands. This isn’t just a possibility: it’s irrefutable history, rewritten on the graves of countless tribes for the last five centuries.’

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