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Archive for October, 2011

I was in Newark on Thursday, giving a Day of Reflection about the Internet and the Church (that’s for another time). We met in Holy Trinity Parish, and I had some great conversations about a huge pastoral project they are involved in. Supported by Lottery funding, and with the help of Regenerate Trust, they are part of a Neighbourhood Challenge pilot scheme that’s trying to find new ways of listening to the needs of the community and responding to those needs through the commitment of the community itself. You can read about it here.

Fr Michael gave me one great example of how listening with sensitivity and openness can bring about unexpected changes. Like most parishes, there was a vague feeling that they were not doing enough for young people, and an assumption that they should start some kind of youth club, which reflected another unspoken assumption that young people wanted to be alone together – isolated within their peer group, and cut off from other relationships with their parents, older or younger siblings, parishioners, neighbours etc.

But when, as part of this project, they actually started asking families what the young people really wanted/needed (I know these are not always the same thing), the answer was: a family evening. Not to stop young people gathering together with their peers; but to allow them to do that in a context where the whole family could be together as well, and where other families – and parishioners and neighbours – could spend time together. So they did it. And it worked!

This is from Caroline Hurst’s blog-post:

On Friday 5th August a group of volunteers arrived at the Community Centre a little apprehensive but very excited, waiting to see what the opening night of  Family Friday’s would hold.

It turned out that well over 50 people came down to the centre and the atmosphere was brilliant. Young people were out playing games on the field, people were playing table tennis and pool. The hot dogs were very well received and tasted great (so I am told) and the tuck shop also went down brilliantly with old and young alike! Adults were catching up with one another and young people were either joining in with their families, playing games or sitting having their own conversations. It was fantastic to see people interacting together so freely and the concerns about ages and parents being around appeared to be unfounded as a good time was had by all.

There were people of all ages there from under 5′s to over 60′s and the interactions were wonderful to see. Several people remarked on the night and since how surprised at the numbers and the success of the evening. All we can hope is that Family Fridays continue to grow and develop. When term time starts up hopefully the word will start to spread and that  even more people will interested in coming and seeing what is on offer of Family Friday’s down at Holy Trinity Community and Partnership Centre.

The peer group is important. And young people need space and a certain privacy. But they also value the security of knowing that parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbours, etc are around. In the right context, there can be a magical balance of freedom and belonging in this kind of environment.

You see this, if you are lucky, when extended families get together, and cousins chase around together while aunties and uncles sit and put the world to rights.

You see this in Lourdes, when part of the joy for young people is spending time with the elderly, loving them for who they are, and also being able to escape in their own groups later in the day.

You see this, sometimes, in village schools, where because of the lack of numbers, children are not isolated within their own age group, but have to share a classroom with those younger and older than themselves, with the result that all sorts of relationships can flourish that would be impossible in a single year group.

I know there are problems as well; I just think we should be a bit more critical of the hidden assumption that the deepest desire of everyone between the ages of 11 and 18 is to get away from anyone who isn’t their age.

[I'm just piecing this all together from a quick conversation with Fr Michael. If anyone from the parish wants to say more about the listening process behind the family nights - please do add your thoughts in the comments below].

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When I was on retreat in September I took De Caussade’s Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence with me for spiritual reading, in the translation by Kitty Muggeridge entitled ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment‘. I read it years ago, but it’s good to come back to it again.

There are many other translations available – see these here on Amazon. Another one I have is a reprint of a Burns and Oates edition that has a fantastic selection of letters by De Caussade (Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Father J. P. de Caussade, translated by Father P. H. Ramiere SJ, edited by Father John Joyce SJ, with an introduction by Dom David Knowles. Tan Books, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1987).

This excerpt from a letter to a religious sister contains the kernel of his spiritual doctrine. It’s very simple, and very powerful.

I do not understand your anxieties, my dear Sister; why do you take pleasure in tormenting yourself, as you do, over the future, when your faith teaches you that the future is in the hands of a Father who is infinitely good, who loves you more than you love yourself and who understands your interests far better than you?

Have you forgotten that everything that happens is directed by the orders of divine Providence? But if we know this how can we hesitate to remain in a state of humble submission, in the most trifling as in the greatest events, to all that God wishes or permits? How blind we are when we desire anything other than what God wishes. He alone knows the dangers which threaten us in the future and the help which we shall need.

I am firmly convinced that we should all be lost if God gave us all our desires, and that is why, as St Augustine says, God, in His mercy and compassion for our blindness, does not always grant our prayers, and sometimes gives us the contrary of what we ask as being in reality better for us. In truth, I often think that nearly all of us are in this world in the position of poor sick people who in their frenzy or delirium ask for the very thing that would cause their death and who have to be refused out of pure charity in an enlightened pity.

My God, if this truth were once for all well-known, with what blind self-abandonment should we not submit ourselves to Thy divine Providence. What peace and tranquillity of heart we should enjoy in every circumstance, not only regarding external events, but also with reference to our interior states of soul.

It shows the importance of good theology for any worthwhile spirituality. If you know that God is infinitely loving, and infinitely powerful; that he is guiding all that happens to you, and everything throughout the whole world; and that he only wants what is best for you and for all –  it changes the way you pray.

You still pray and intercede, but it’s no longer out of fear (trying to change God’s mind because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing or doesn’t really care as much as you do). There is a fundamental trust within every prayer, and a reassurance that what is truly best really is unfolding – even if we can’t yet understand how.

It doesn’t lead to passivity or quietism, or to the misguided view that everything that happens is therefore good in itself (because it’s obvious that bad things and sometimes terrible things happen). It just means that there is an underlying trust in the Providence of God: that he only allows this because he desires to bring something greater out of it; that in his mercy he longs to redeem this situation – even in the face of apparent failure and meaninglessness; and that his deepest desire in everything is to lead us to what is for our true happiness and salvation.

Above all, it is a theology of hope.

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The BBC were at Allen Hall recently, not with a film crew, but to take some still photographs for a slideshow about seminary life on their website. You can take a look here.

A view from the garden - one of our photos, not from the BBC

If you have dipped into this blog now and then, and wondered what Allen Hall looks like on the inside, the slideshow is certainly worth looking at. There are some stunning photographs. It’s amazing how a decent camera and a photographer with a good eye can make the most ordinary corner seem interesting or alluring. And it’s equally amazing how many seminarians were engrossed in their studies in the library when the photographer happened to be coming by…

There are also three interviews strung together to make a short commentary over the slides. The Rector of Allen Hall Mgr Mark O’Toole, first year seminarian Damian Ryan and fifth year seminarian Martin Plunkett talk about the challenges of becoming a priest today.

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Sadly I couldn’t afford to fly out to the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco this week. One of the social networking themes discussed was the question of whether there are advantages to sharing less rather than more.

Facebook has pioneered the concept of ‘frictionless sharing’ (a term I just learnt): when your personal information, your consumer choices, your likes and dislikes, your moods, your geographical position, etc, are all shared automatically and seamlessly with your online friends. But this ignores the psychological and sociological evidence that a significant part of friendship and social bonding is choosing what not to share, what not to reveal.

There’s a nice quote from Vic Gundotra who is head of the Google+ project, which tries to be a classier and more selective Facebook:

There is a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth. The core attribute of the human is to curate how others perceive you and what you say. Even something as simple as music – I don’t want all my music shared with everybody. I’m embarrassed I like that one Britney Spears track. I want people to know I like U2. That’s cooler than saying I like Britney Spears. If that’s how I feel about music, how will I feel about things I read? [Quoted in an article by Murad Ahmed, The Times today, p26]

Less is more, not from a sort of reactionary puritanism, but because the way we create ourselves and communicate who we are is always, at some level, through making decisions about what to reveal and what to withhold. This is how we give shape to the person we are, and allow others to come to know us. I like especially that idea that we ‘curate’ ourselves.

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love and treasure books. I still have the first book I ever possessed: a pocket King James Bible, given to me on the day of my baptism by my maternal grandparents. I still have the first book I remember ‘reading’ (meaning ‘looking at’ or ‘being read to me’): an illustrated life of St Francis of Assisi for children. And, by the way, the most recent book I bought was Volume 3 of the Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila – ordered on Amazon on Monday evening. I suppose there is a religious thread here…

When I was old enough to get the train to London on my own I spent hours in the second-hand bookshops around Camden Town and Charing Cross Road, snapping up all the hippie books that were de riguere for any self-respecting teenager at the time – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Rules for Radicals, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Tao of Physics, The Faber Book of Modern Verse, etc. This is what formed me! But even while I was hunting out paperback bargains to sit under my Athena posters, I had one covetous eye on the small collection of Folio Society books that sat in the corner of every bookshop.

They were and still are the most beautiful books in the world. The covers, the binding, the print, the paper, the illustrations. And the box cases, with that distinctive curve at the front edges so you can pull the book out without having to shake it. Every one a work of art.

I dreamt of having a whole library of Folio Books. I own one now, Augustine’s Confessionswhich I blogged about last year. The second-hand bookshop round the corner here in Chelsea has its own Folio Society shelf – I might pop round tomorrow and see what I can find.

I write all this simply because there is a feature on the Guardian website about Folio books – more an advertisement really. But it does give a glimpse of what delights exist behind the covers – a taster for anyone who hasn’t come across them before. Here is the main feature. Here are ten classics, with examples of their illustrations. Here is the Folio Society site itself.

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"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter" (a nice photo - but I'm not sure how sturdy this shelter is...)

Two friends got married yesterday. For the first reading, they chose this passage about friendship from Ecclesiasticus (6:14-17):

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright,
   for as they are, so are their neighbours also.

Here are a couple of thoughts – not the whole sermon, just the reflection on friendship:

It’s a lovely thing that they were friends for a good period before they started dating, because it helps them to see that friendship is the foundation even of the great romance that has brought them to marriage.

An enduring friendship, through all the inevitable ups and downs of life, is a key part of what sustains a marriage. It’s why the word ‘honour’ is so important in the marriage rite. You honour a person for who they are, for what their innate dignity deserves, and not just because you happen to love them.

The last verse of the reading is particularly thought-provoking: “Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbour also”. As you are, so will your friend be, so will your spouse be.

A simple interpretation of this is to say that ‘like attracts like’, we are drawn to people who are similar to us – and there is some truth to that.

But a deeper meaning is this: that the person you choose to be at any moment will have a formative effect on your spouse. If you are loving, patient, cheerful, forgiving; this will have an effect, for the good, on your spouse. If you are ratty, resentful, complaining, mistrustful; the chances are, before too long, so will your spouse be too.

Everyone wishes that their husband or wife were more loving, more perfect. The secret is to be more loving yourself. The effects, as anyone knows, are not always immediate (if only they were!). But if you want your spouse to be good, and you want your friendship to last, there is no clearer path than trying to be a good person yourself; and persevering on that path.

And, since I’m cutting and pasting, a final section about the openness of a couple within marriage:

There is a special beauty about a marriage that is open to God and open to the gift of children. It’s hard to describe, but it’s true.

If you live your Catholic faith, and pray together, and make your home and family a place of faith and holiness – in one sense it makes you less intensely focussed on each other.

You can’t say to each other, like in the romantic novels, ‘You are everything to me’ or ‘You are my all’, because it’s simply not true. There’s God also, there’s life after death, there’s the family, there’s all the other stuff too. (Now I’m not a hardliner; and we’ll allow you a bit of romance and exaggerated lovers’ language.)

But in a strange way, the fact that two people are less focussed on each other (because of their faith) allows them to love each other more freely, with more passion and more purity. And you really see this.

It’s not a bargain, as if to say, ‘If you love God, he will bless your marriage’. It’s a spiritual truth, that your openness to God in faith, and your openness to the gift of children that he may send you, will have a direct effect on your openness to each other in love and friendship.

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You know about my love of prehistoric cave paintings. The famous images at Chauvet were painted over 30,000 years ago – quite a distance in time. This makes it all the more astonishing that painting kits used about 100,000 years ago have been discovered in a cave in South Africa, evidence not just of the production of art and the presence of a symbolic imagination, but also of an ability to mix chemicals and store materials.

Etologic horse study from cave at Chauvet

This is the abstract describing the research in Science.

The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represents a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition. Excavations in 2008 at Blombos Cave, South Africa, revealed a processing workshop where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced and stored in two Haliotis midae (abalone) shells 100,000 years ago. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of this production toolkit. The application of the mixture is unknown, but possibilities include decoration and skin protection.

Ian Sample comments:

Two sets of implements for preparing red and yellow ochres to decorate animal skins, body parts or perhaps cave walls were excavated at the Blombos cave on the Southern Cape near the Indian Ocean.

The stone and bone tools for crushing, mixing and applying the pigments were uncovered alongside the shells of giant sea snails that had been used as primitive mixing pots. The snails are indigenous to South African waters.

“This is the first known instance for deliberate planning, production and curation of a compound,” Christopher Henshilwood at the University of Bergen told Science, adding that the finding also marked the first known use of containers. “It’s early chemistry. It casts a whole new light on early Homo sapiens and tells us they were probably a lot more intelligent than we think, and capable of carrying out quite sophisticated acts at least 40,000 to 50,000 years before any other known example of this kind of basic chemistry,” he added.

“You could use this type of mixture to prepare animal skins, to put on as body paint, or to paint on the walls of the cave, but it is difficult to be sure how it was used,” said Francesco d’Errico, a study co-author at the University of Bordeaux. “The discovery is a paradox because we now know much better how the pigment was made than what it is used for.”

So we were there, we Homo sapiens, 100,000 years ago – imagining, thinking, planning, cooperating, collecting, mixing, experimenting, storing, painting; and whatever else this painting led into…

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