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Archive for March, 2012

Those of you who are not on Facebook can ignore this post and luxuriate in your non-dysfunctional psychological maturity and in your general being-at-ease-with-yourself-and-your-neighbour-and-your-world-ness.

For the rest of us, the hard question is: how often do we fiddle around on our Facebook page, not through an uncomplicated desire to share and communicate, but because we are subconsciously desperate to put ourselves at the centre of everyone else’s attention, to receive some kind of social networking version of approval, to be liked, and if not at least to be noticed?

Put more simply: is Facebook making us more narcissistic? Or – because we don’t know what is the cause and what is the effect – is our increasing narcissism finding a ready-made outlet in Facebook and other forms of social media?

Narcissus falling in love with his own image. Detail from a painting by John Waterhouse.

Damien Pearse writes about some recent research on the links between narcissism and social networking.

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

Researchers concentrated on the two socially disruptive forms of narcissism: ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ (self-absorption, vanity, superiority, exhibitionistic tendencies, a need to be constantly at the centre of attention), and ‘entitlement/exploitativeness’ (which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”).

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

But he added: “Whether the same is true of non-college students or of young people in other countries, such as the UK, remains an open question, as far as I know.

“Without understanding the causes underlying the historical change in US college students, we do not know whether these causes are factors that are relatively specific to American culture, such as the political focus on increasing self-esteem in the late 80s and early 90s or whether they are factors that are more general, for example new technologies such as mobile phones and Facebook.”

What is cause and what is effect?

Vignoles said the correlational nature of the latest study meant it was difficult to be certain whether individual differences in narcissism led to certain patterns of Facebook behaviour, whether patterns of Facebook behaviour led to individual differences in narcissism, or a bit of both.

But don’t worry – it’s not all negative. This is just one study, and the researchers are not denying that there are real benefits of social networking.

Christopher Carpenter, who ran the study, said: “In general, the ‘dark side’ of Facebook requires more research in order to better understand Facebook’s socially beneficial and harmful aspects in order to enhance the former and curtail the latter.

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.”

I suppose the most narcissistic response to this article would be to terminate your Facebook account in a blaze of online soul-searching and self-publicity, a final fire-storm of frantic pre-termination reflections, posts, de-tagging and emotional farewells. But that leaves you with a problem: what will you do to feed the narcissism tomorrow?

(And do you notice how silent I am on the links between Facebook narcissism and blogging narcissism! Perhaps that needs another post…)

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The second part of my recent study day on the New Evangelisation was about what it looks like in practice. Instead of theorising, I looked at five UK projects that I happen to have stumbled across over the last few years. All of them, at least in some implicit way, are a response to the Church’s call to be involved in the New Evangelisation. The five initiatives are: Spirit in the City, St Patrick’s Evangelisation School, Youth 2000, Catholic Voices and Ten Ten Theatre.

St Patrick's Church, Soho Square, home to SPES

Then, after giving a straightforward account of the history and practice of each group, I tried to draw out some common themes that run through all of these projects, to give a kind of generic outline of what the New Evangelisation looks like when it becomes embodied in a particular culture. I hoped that this last part of the day would give some practical ideas to parishes and groups that are wanting to reach out in mission.

You can listen to the talk here.

You can download the talk here.

[The whole talk is just over an hour, but the different sections begin at these times, so you can scroll through:  Spirit in the City at 5:30, St Patrick's Evangelisation School at 14:50, Youth 2000 at 23:50, Catholic Voices at 32:45, and Ten Ten Theatre at 42:15. And the final theological reflections begin at 55:15.]

If you missed the first talk, with the title ‘What is the New Evangelisation?’ – see the earlier post here.

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I led a study day on the New Evangelisation last week. The first talk was simply about what it all means.

In one sense, it’s an odd phrase: Isn’t evangelisation always new?

Even Blessed John Paul II’s famous tag-line is not too helpful in this respect. He said we need an evangelisation that is ‘new in its ardour, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression’. But there is nothing new about needing this newness – haven’t we always needed new ardour, new expressions, new methods? And hasn’t the Church always (well, nearly always) responded with some magnificent and unexpected and new embodiment of the missionary spirit?

Blessed Pope John Paul II during a General Audience

On the other hand, perhaps there is something truly new about the present situation, meaning the situation of the Church during and since Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate. Some of the new factors might include: the crisis of ‘missiology’ (the theology of mission and evangelisation) in the second half of the twentieth century, and the corresponding crisis within the Church’s missionary  outreach; the number of baptised people, of people who have been ‘initiated’ sacramentally, who have not really heard the Gospel message in a personal way, who have not been evangelised themselves, or perhaps have not been well catechised after their initiation; the need to re-evangelise former Christian cultures and societies (this isn’t new, but it is certainly pressing and it feels new to those living through it); or the challenge for Western societies to hold onto their Christian moral and spiritual roots before they truly slip into a post-Christian secularism – one of Pope Benedict’s themes.

I’m just summarising. If you are interested, please listen to the talk yourself.

You can listen here.

You can download the talk here.

[I post about the second half of the study day here, which includes the audio links: The New Evangelisation in practice: five UK initiatives and their significance for the wider Church]

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I’d forgotten what a beautiful collection of paintings there is at the Courtauld Gallery. The tag-line on its website reads ‘one of the finest small museums in the world’; and I can vouch that in my small experience of small museums it comes pretty near the top. Do pay a visit if you have never been (information here). It’s housed in Somerset House on the Strand in central London.

It was the Mondrian-Nicholson exhibition that took me there on Friday. I’ve always enjoyed the Mondrian grid paintings, but I came away with a much greater admiration for Ben Nicholson.

The Mondrian paintings feel like studies, ideas, or speculative essays. They make you think about balance, harmony, relation and discord; how a particular colour and shape relates to another; and there is certainly an aesthetic response. But it feels more like thinking than seeing, as if you are somehow detached from your own experience.

[The two pictures here are not from the current exhibition.]

I think it’s the thickness of the black grid lines. It’s as if Mondrian is saying, ‘I’m telling you how the colours relate’, instead of just letting the relationships speak for themselves. I’m not criticising the project – I’m sure he knew what he was doing. I’m just responding to it.

Nicholson’s geometric abstractions, as well using a greater variety of colours, and daring to incorporate the odd circle here and there, are without the black grid lines; so the patches of colour and space touch each other and seem to grow out of each other. The paintings seem more alive, more organic. They seem to have greater presence.

There is an incredible beauty about two or three of the canvases here, and it helps you to understand the significance of the whole abstract movement in art. The relationship between abstraction and realism is like that between metaphysics and the world. In Nicholson’s geometric paintings you can see what it is for something to be there and not here, to be what it is and not what something else is, to support or oppose or surround or frustrate or liberate or oppress – but all of this now without content. It’s like a dance without the dancers.

It’s not just the art itself that becomes abstract; it’s a means of contemplating in abstraction so much that takes place within human experience and so much that is experienced of the world. One painting took my breath away, and held me there almost in suspension - Painting, Version I, 1938 – heartbroken that it is from an anonymous private collection and I may never see it again in my life. I wish I could find an image to show, but it wouldn’t capture it. You will have to go yourself.

It’s wonderful that the two rooms of this temporary exhibition lead into the small but exquisite selection of early German expressionist paintings in the Courtauld collection. You see artists like Jawlensky and Kandinsky around 1910/11 almost slipping into abstraction, seeing the possibilities of actually breaking free from representation and leaving themselves with form alone – the formality of colour, shape and space. And seeing how much could still be ‘said’ and expressed solely with the formal elements.

It’s just a short step from Kandinsky’s Improvisation on Mohogany, 1910, to the Mondrian-Nicholson paintings of the 1930s next door.

This is the wall commentary from that painting:

By 1910 Kandinsky has developed his art to the brink of abstraction… emphasising the sensation of colour, line and form, freed from their descriptive functions. Here, isolated details can be identified, such as the figure of a woman and the outlines of a walled city to the right. However, the textured patches of brilliant colour generate their own energy and harmony.

So I am now a huge Ben Nicholson fan. Does anyone know where I can see some of his other paintings?

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I’ve been working on a resource for parents, in collaboration with Ten Ten Theatre and the Catholic Truth Society. Don’t worry, it’s not based on my vast (meaning non-existent) experience of being a parent; I’m just the editor.

Here is the back-cover copy:

Being a parent today is a huge privilege and a daunting challenge. It raises so many questions about how to love your children, how to live your family life, and how to pass on your Catholic faith.

This booklet gathers together the experiences of different mothers, fathers, teachers and priests. It is not a list of rules, but a collection of ideas and practical suggestions that will help you reflect on your vocation as a parent and draw closer to your children.

In straightforward language, it deals with topics such as spending time together, listening, discipline, forgiveness, school, prayer, Sunday Mass, sex education, the internet, family celebrations, and much more.

Here is some background/history to how and why the project developed:

Two years in the making, Ten Ten Theatre is almost ready to launch a new booklet for parents.

Edited by Fr Stephen Wang, the 90-page pocket-size booklet will be co-produced with the CTS (Catholic Truth Society) and given as a free gift to all adults who attend Ten Ten’s daily parent sessions.

From April, we will have two primary school teams on the road running sessions for parents every day; this booklet is designed to encourage and support parents in their role as “primary educators” of their children on fundamental matters of faith and relationships.

Fr Stephen’s book has been written with the support of dozens of parents, teachers and priests. It covers a wide range of topics including: TV and internet, mealtimes, prayer and sex education.

We would like to put 10,000 copies in the homes of families throughout the UK over the next three years. To do this, we must raise £3,500 now in order to print that quantity of booklets.

And the main reason for blogging about this is to appeal for money. The CTS will sell the booklets in parishes and bookshops, but the copies distributed by Ten Ten in their school work will be given away free of charge. Ten Ten are nowhere near their target of £3,500. If you have a heart for this kind of outreach, and an appreciation of how much support and encouragement parents need, please do think of donating something to the Ten Ten fund.

You can see all the donating options here.

You can donate online by PayPal here.

And the simplest possible way to send a small donation is through the ‘text-to-donate’ system:

Please text TNTN10 £x (the amount you would like to donate) and send it to 70070.

There are no admin charges and Ten Ten receives the full amount of your donation. There is also the option of adding Gift Aid.

For example, you could send the following text message to 70070:

TNTN10  £10

We will receive your donation immediately; the amount will be charged to your phone bill.

Note: the maximum donation allowed in any one text is £10. If you would like to donate more, you can send multiple texts.

Thanks in advance for any support you can give. I’ll post about the booklet when it is finally published – it should be soon after Easter.

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I posted on Saturday about the topic of same-sex ‘marriage’ in general, without discussing the process of consultation that is taking place over these next twelve weeks.

The document from the Government Equalities Office shows a staggering narrowness and an unapologetic lack of interest in consulting about the two main issues that anyone, surely, would be concerned about – whatever their views. Namely, what the social effects of this redefinition would be, and whether it is a good thing for our society to redefine marriage in this way. The fundamental questions of what and whether are simply bypassed in the main opening sections. The only question asked in the main topic box on page 2 is how: ‘how to provide equal access to civil marriage for same sex couples’; just as the only question asked in the Ministerial Foreword on page 1 is ‘how we can remove the ban on same-sex couples having a civil marriage in a way that works for everyone’. Granted, the first of the detailed consultation questions is, ‘Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples regardless of their gender to have a civil marriage ceremony?’ But this is in the context of a consultation that has already defined itself in its introductory statements as a means to working out how and not whether.

Catholic Voices analyses this much better than I can:

The Government’s consultation paper, published yesterday under the misleading title of Equal civil marriage: a consultation reveals both the shoddiness of its thinking and the extraordinary authoritarianism of a process which Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, has repeatedly made clear has only one outcome.

The Government’s proposal fundamentally to alter – and in the process radically redefine in such a way as to render it meaningless — a major social public institution which has traditionally been protected by the state is one of the most audacious uses of unaccountable state power in more than a generation.

The proposal was in no party manifesto prior to the May 2010 general election. There has been no Green Paper or White Paper. Yet the Government makes clear that this is a consultation not on whether to introduce gay marriage but on how to. And they have also made clear that the strength of public opinion – manifest in the Coalition for Marriage’s historically large petition in protest (now exceeding 200,000), as well as in the ComRes poll for Catholic Voices advertised in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph showing 70% of British people in favour of retaining the current definition – will simply be ignored. The Government’s response to the consultation, they say on p. 2, “will be based on a consideration of the points made in consultation responses, not the number of responses received.”

As Greg Daly points out, the Consultation continually confuses weddings and marriages, in such a way as to imply that civil and religious marriages are two separate legal realities. In fact, in law there is only marriage, with two ways into it — via the state (civil ceremonies) or the Church (church weddings), with each (state and Church) recognising the other’s ceremonies as valid. This is because both Church and state recognise the reality of marriage as an institution embedded in civil society which precedes and predates both state and Church — and which lies beyond their control to redefine. The Government utterly fails to grasp this essential point, and appears baffled, therefore, at the Churches’ vigorous opposition to the move.

The description of same-sex marriage as “equal” marriage is a naked attempt at hijacking the term; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already makes clear that men and women have the an equal right to marriage. The notion that redefining marriage is for the sake of “equality” is nakedly absurd, as the Catholic Voices briefing paper (recently updated) makes clear.

The other massive flaw in the Consultation, one which exposes the poverty of the Government’s thinking about marriage, is the complete absence from it of children. As the Archbishop of Westminster pointed out in last night’s Newsnight (beginning at 11’40):

‘To me it is utterly astonishing that in the whole consultation document … there is not one reference to a child. There is no reference to children at all. And I think that shows that the vision of marriage contained in the consultation document is reduced. It is excluding things that are of the very nature of marriage.’

The Consultation lasts until June. At present, the debate is being cast as a disagreement between the entire political establishment and the Churches, almost alone in their organised opposition. The leaders of all three political parties, cowed by the efficient lobbying of Stonewall – whose £4m annual budget allows it to employ teams of lawyers and lobbyists — are in favour of the proposal. Unless civil society organises, and a proper debate is enjoined, the state will be allowed to reshape society in a way that can only be described as totalitarian. The choice is ours.

Public reactions do influence the thinking of politicians. If you want to sign the petition organised by Coalition for Marriage, you can visit the site here.

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I had a few minutes in the British Museum last week – not long enough to visit the Hajj exhibition, so instead I wandered round the Islamic section by the back door.

I came across this beautiful unbound copy of the Qur’an from West Africa, together with its leather carrying case. There was a tradition of having an unbound edition of the book, so that the individual leaves could be distributed around a class of boys for study and memorisation, and then collected together at the end.

I have always loved unbound books, filing cards, manuals that come apart or consist of discrete detachable sections, etc. I don’t know if it takes me back to pre-nursery flash cards (although I don’t think my mum had a stash of these!), or my huge collection of Top Trumps.

I certainly remember being fascinated by a series of history ‘books’ at school which were really folders filled with facsimile documents, and one of my favourite birthday presents was a set of architectural blueprints (or whatever the technical word is) of each individual floor of the Starship Enterprise – with every lift shaft and escape hatch and ‘beam me up Scotty’ floor-disc carefully marked.

And I have had such a disrespect for books (or a love at the idea that they can easily and usefully be deconstructed) that – don’t be shocked – I have been in the habit of cutting them up into different sections so I can take just the next few necessary pages with me on the bus.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a ‘whole’, a unit, that can be taken apart and put together again – like a Lego or Meccano structure. Perhaps it’s the joy of taking out a beautiful object (in this case a piece of paper) and knowing that it has its proper place to go back to – the delight of storage. Or it’s just that something is useful and adaptable and practical.

Is there such a thing as an unbound bible? Bible flashcards? So you can take out your chapter of the week and carry it around with you without having to carry all two thousand pages? Let me know if you have something useful like this.

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You might be sick to death of media discussions about same-sex marriage, but just in case you need a bit more background and food for thought, here is the latest briefing paper from Catholic Voices. (There is a link to the paper in the 5th paragraph here.) Despite the ‘Catholic Voices’ label, it doesn’t try to argue against redefining marriage from a religious point of view; instead it appeals to a vision of how marriage as presently understood serves the common good of society – for people of no faith as much as for people of faith; and it argues that redefining marriage will harm the whole of society and not just the religious groups that might be promised some kind of ‘exemption’.

Here are a few choice paragraphs. First, on the implications of the redefinition for society as a whole:

It is also inadequate to assert, as does the gay rights lobby Stonewall, that “if Roman Catholics don’t approve of same-sex marriage, they should make sure they don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”  The question of whether marriage should be redefined such that its meaning and nature cease to be conjugal is a one which affects the whole of society; and a matter on which all people – whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, religious or unreligious – are entitled to express a view.  Marriage has an intrinsic cultural and social meaning – a conjugal meaning – which is not specific to religious understandings of marriage, although religion gives it extra meaning. Whether entered by the religious or the civil route, marriage is marriage; its intrinsic conjugal meaning will need to be rejected in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Second, on the impoverished vision of marriage being presented in the re-definition:

When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year addressed his party’s conference, his justification for legalising gay marriage differed from that of his Equalities Minister. “Yes, it’s about equality,” he said, “but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” This frame allowed him to claim that he did not support gay marriage “despite” but “because of” being a Conservative.

Similarly, the liberal-conservative Economist asserted that “the real nature of marriage … is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another.” The magazine went on to ask: “If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

This same truncated thinking underlies the Government’s consultation paper, which gives as one of its “principles for change” the following statement: “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage.”

These definitions of marriage as merely an expression of commitment between two individuals are severely truncated: as Archbishop Vincent Nichols has pointed out, “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage”. The quotes above make no reference to the key element in the conjugal understanding of marriage which has permeated our culture and history and which – as our poll shows – remains widespread. Unlike the Prime Minister, most people see marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of the bearing and nurturing of children (even if children do not always result). This conjugal understanding of marriage is not just marriage’s real meaning; it is also the reason it is respected and promoted by the state.

Then a passage about the importance of marriage for the common good:

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

  1. The family is the founding unit of civil society
  2. At the heart of the family is the sexual union of a man and a woman given to each other for their sake and for the good of their children;
  3. Marriage provides the ideal, irreplaceable environment for the raising of children, who benefit psychologically, emotionally, and in countless other ways by being brought up by their mother and father.

Marriage has many “goods” – emotional commitment and stability among them. But the reason the state promotes marriage is because of its link to, and benefits for, children. These benefits are inextricably bound up with the conjugal union of man and a woman, who become mother and father to the children they generate. Other arrangements for bringing up children are not promoted and legitimised by the state because, however loving the carers, they are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by adopted parents or by relatives, by same-sex couples or in foster homes, are all missing something essential to their well-being; and that is why society (and the state) do not promote and institutionalise such arrangements. For while there are bad marriages and bad families, and sad cases where children are abused by their parents, the overwhelming, unchanging norm is that a child raised by his or her mother and father stands the best chance in life. It is not simply the presence of two parents of opposite genders, but the presence of two biological parents, that best supports children’s development – and this is something recognised, as our survey shows, by 84 per cent of British people.

Although marriage is indissolubly linked to children, it is not simply a means for procreation. Couples who cannot for some reason reproduce can still be married: both Church and state accept that a marriage exists as long as it can be consummated – that is, as long as the behavioural conditions for procreation can be fulfilled.

Marriage is singled out and promoted by state, religion, and civil society, because it serves a far-reaching social good – the welfare of children. No compelling case exists for the state recognising same-sex (or other, non-marital) relationships in the same way as it supports marriage.

And finally, on how a redefinition would impact on everyone, and not just on the gay couples who would choose to ‘marry’ in this way:

One thing is clear: the redefinition which the Government proposes would require the state renouncing the conjugal understanding of marriage. Because society takes its cue from laws and the state, that redefinition will send a clear message that the state no longer holds to that conjugal understanding. The implication will be that the union of husband and wife is not, after all, a privileged context for the upbringing of a child. No kind of arrangement for the rearing of children can any longer be proposed by the state (and therefore society) as an ideal.

To suggest otherwise will in time be considered narrow-minded and intolerant. The very terms “husband and wife”, “mother and father”, would need to disappear from public and educational literature to avoid “exclusive” or “intolerant” language. The redefinition of marriage will require the cultural dethroning of the conjugal ideal. This is not a smaller matter for future generations of children, whose interests risk being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological view that same-sex relationships are as worthy as heterosexual ones of being upheld by the state. “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense” [Cardinal Keith O'Brien].

Losing the idea of gender complementarity as necessary for children will also have consequences. “Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences … It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial” [Archbishop Peter Smith]. As the columnist Matthew Parris, who is gay, writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Do read the whole text, which partly deals with some of the objections that you might be raising as you read these summary paragraphs. There is a link to the paper in this report.

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I love the new statue on the fourth plinth. It is well worth a visit whenever you are passing through central London.

Ostensibly, it’s about innocence, joy, hope, and (as one of the artists says) ‘looking to the future’: a young boy, slightly older than I expected (is he about six or seven?), leans back in delight on his golden rocking horse, held in suspension before he lunges forward again.

But there is the rub: ‘looking to the future’. What future? It’s impossible not to compare the rocking horse with the military horses that adorn various other plinths round London, and with George IV’s horse on the third plinth just the other side of Trafalgar Square. And that sets up three implicit meanings to the statue that perpetually jostle with each other and create an incredible hermeneutical tension.

Is it saying: Forget the military heroism, the cult of the strong leader, the violence of war – there is something simpler and purer here, the innocence of childhood, which should lead to a brighter future without the disfigurement of war?

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the iconic warriors, and all they have done – for good or for ill. Look at them, and see how they were once as innocent as this young boy. See how innocence can be corrupted. See how quickly childhood disappears.

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the warriors, the liberators, the tyrants, the demagogues, the nameless horsemen who have led others into battle over the centuries. Look at them, and see how they were never innocent, because their aggression and their posturing started in the nursery, when they played at soldiers, and when their mock heroics – like this rocking horse moment – cast a psychological mould and set them on a trajectory that would lead to a thousand battlefields.

In other words, do you see in this boy an innocence that need never be corrupted, or an innocence that will one day be tragically corrupted, or a faux innocence that hides a corruption that has always been there and will one day wreak havoc?

In theological terms: Do you believe that there is no such thing as the Fall (that we live in and will continue to live in a time of Original Blessing), or that since the Fall we are prone to corruption and affected by it in different ways depending on our circumstances and our reactions, or that we are fundamentally corrupted by the Fall and without innocence or hope from the very beginning?

In psychological/sociological terms: Do you think that the harm we suffer or do is avoidable, or the inevitable result of our nurture, or the inevitable result of our nature?

Is it anti-war or pro-war or pre-war or indifferent-to-war or post-war or just a boy on a rocking horse?

Aside from these slightly heavy puzzles and provocations, it is an absolutely beautiful object, a joy to behold! And if you want to forget all the references to war and corruption and the Fall and just enjoy it as a celebration of the innocence of childhood – that’s fine…

Some words from Mark Brown’s article:

The 4.1-metre golden boy was unveiled on the fourth plinth on Thursday to whoops, aahhs and confused looks from foreign tourists in passing coaches. The reaction from Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset was one of immense relief.

“You’re not allowed to make tests, so it is a bit of a gamble,” said Ingar Dragset. “It’s installed the night before – it’s nerve-racking.”

The boy’s formal name is Powerless Structures, Fig 101, and he sits on top of a plinth designed to host a bronze equestrian statue of William IV by Sir Charles Barry, which was never installed.

More than 170 years later the boy becomes the latest in a series of contemporary art commissions that has included Marc Quinn’s pregnant Alison Lapper and, most recently, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare.

The statue was unveiled by Joanna Lumley who said she was thrilled to be revealing what was a “completely unthreatening and adorable creature” to the public.

Lumley said the plinth was great because it gets people talking. “What I love about this plinth, which is extraordinary because it’s empty, is that everybody is waiting to see what comes next … and everybody becomes an instant art critic. Everybody knows what should be there, what’s better than last time, what’s marvellous, what’s wonderful, what’s dreadful.”

Michael Elmgreen said it was deliberate that you have to walk around the square to meet the boy’s eyes and to see his expression – he is looking away from George IV “because he is afraid of him”.

While the other statues in the square celebrate power, this work celebrates growing up. He is a “more sensitive and fragile creature looking to the future”, said Elmgreen. The hope is that it might encourage people to consider less spectacular events in their lives, ones which are often the most important.

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Following on from the Elephant Parade two years ago, when over 250 brightly painted life-size elephants were displayed throughout London, multicoloured eggs have been appearing around the city as part of the Faberge Big Egg Hunt. Despite the apparent ‘commercialisation’ (I mean sponsorship), I was excited about the idea and longing to get my first sighting.

The problem is that the eggs simply aren’t big enough. They are not so much ‘public works of art’ (as the elephants were), but ‘works of art that happen to be displayed in public’. Maybe the criticism is unfair, and it reflects my own unrealistic expectations. But I went in expecting something as stunning and provocative and bold as the elephants.

They are about two and a half feet tall, mainly on a podium or even in a display case. Some of them lovely objects, but none quite huge enough for the full, glorious impactful ridiculousness of having gigantic coloured eggs scattered around London. How tall would they need to be, in my humble opinion?At least four feet, maybe five. Six would be getting a bit scary…

So yes, it’s a fun venture, a nice addition to London life, a pleasant distraction, and I’m sure it’s all for good cause. But it could have been so much more!

What do you think? Am I being churlish?

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I’ve managed to get to the 40 Days for Life vigil in central London a couple of times since it started on Ash Wednesday. People gather outside the BPAS abortion clinic in Bedford Square, between Tottenham Court Road station and the British Museum. They pray. They witness peacefully to an alternative vision of life to that offered by the abortion culture. And they offer practical and loving support to women and men who perhaps think they have no alternative to seeking an abortion. It’s non-confrontational and non-judgemental, and it takes place across the street from the clinic so that people visiting there do not have to walk directly past a row of people they would rather avoid. One hour there were two or three people; another time there were about ten.

If you have time, why not try to visit and join the vigil, even if it is just for a few minutes. I know many people will feel uneasy about this – I did myself. There is a natural nervousness about doing anything in public as Christians, and a fear that this could become confrontational, and perhaps a genuine question about whether this kind of witness might be unhelpful and even counter-productive. I had all these questions and all these fears.

In the end, three thoughts persuaded me to go. First, the fact of simply praying must be doing some good. Second, I know not just from reading about it but also from friends involved that this witness has really helped a few people to re-think what they are doing and supported them in keeping their babies; it’s given some people not just a new hope but also the practical support to do what deep down they wanted to do. It’s helped to really change hearts and minds. And third, I am often tempted to go round in circles considering the pros and cons of an argument, and I thought that I should just go and experience for myself what it is all about.

I won’t pretend every moment is easy. Every now and then someone will walk past and make a comment (‘It’s none of your business’, ‘A woman’s right to choose’), and in these moments I feel very awkward, and question what we are doing. But there is a pervading sense of peace and prayerfulness, and a heartfelt charity towards all those involved in the clinic. People at the vigil are not there to judge, but to pray and to offer hope. And you feel the reality of this prayer and hope when you are there, even if it highlights the starkness of the choices many people are facing.

It’s also true that the vigil becomes a small and rare sign in the middle of London, to ordinary passers-by, that abortion is an everyday reality in our city, and that there is another view, another possibility. Abortion is for the most part an unquestioned part of the tapestry of British life. I’m not judging anyone here; I’m judging the culture that normalises abortion and makes it seem strange that people would stand in vigil to offer an alternative voice.

I came away with my faith strengthened, glad to have been able to offer a small witness to life. I also came away encouraged in a very concrete way by the knowledge that when we were there one of the women on the vigil had been able to have a long and much appreciated discussion with someone visiting the clinic. What happened in the end I don’t know, but at least something was offered.

Another strange and unexpected effect on me was the sense of standing with those who are suffering, with those who have no-one else to stand with them – even if it has no ‘practical’ consequence. These innocent human beings who are being aborted have been ‘forgotten’ by their parents, by the doctors, by the nurses; but at least a few people are trying to show that they are not forgotten. It reminded me of the women standing at the foot of the cross – offering their compassion to the crucified Christ, even if this didn’t seem to help him directly.

So the 40 Days for Life vigil seems to me to be about prayer, witness, support and solidarity; things that are undeniably good, even if there remain complex questions about what they mean and how best to express them.

The main website about the London event is here. You can see the international site here. The London Facebook page is here.

This ‘mission statement’ is from the blog.

40 days of peaceful prayer, fasting, and outreach to bring an end to abortion. We will help any person, whether mother, father, relative or friend, facing difficulties and considering an abortion. We also care about those that work at the abortion clinic. We pray for them and hope for their release from the culture of death, recognising that they too are wounded by abortion. We work for a change of hearts and minds, and a culture that defends life from conception.

And this is a summary of what the vigil is all about:

A peaceful and prayerful vigil opposite the abortion facility were countless unborn children are killed everyday. We stand in witness and prayer for the unborn children, their parents, and the people who work in the abortion industry.

Please join us daily anytime between 8am and 8pm, seven days a week.

We ask that each of our participants sign the statement of peace, abide by the law, and remain prayerful.

It is a really great help to the organisers if you could sign-up online and book which times you are able to join us at the vigil. This helps us to know which times are covered and which times need people present. Simply go to this link, sign-up, and choose you days and times.

Location:  North West Corner of Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HP (Directions)
Dates:   February 22, 2012 – April 1, 2012
Time:   STARTS: 8:00 AM     ENDS: 8:00 PM

Here is the ‘statement of peace’ you have to sign if you go as a registered participant:

1. I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign

2. I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility employees, volunteers, and customers

3. I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign

4. I am in no way associated with the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood or its affiliates by way of employment, informant, volunteer, client, or otherwise

While standing in the city right of way in front of the abortion facility:

5. I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way

6. I will not litter on the public right of way

7. I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil

8. I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, or customers

9. I will not vandalize private property

10. I will cooperate with local city authorities

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I published this piece in Independent Catholic News earlier in the week:

Why is it ‘female infanticide’ to abort a baby girl on the grounds that she is a girl, but not ‘infanticide’ to abort the same baby girl on the grounds that she is just a baby?

The strong and provocative language about ‘female infanticide’ (rather than ‘termination’) and ‘babies’ (rather than ‘fetuses’) isn’t my own, it’s straight from the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

As you have probably heard, undercover reporters working for the paper have found that a number of abortion clinics in this country are willing to arrange terminations on the grounds that the mother or both parents are unhappy about the sex of the baby – which is illegal.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that having an abortion on the grounds of gender is right, or that the abortion law should be changed to include this extra criterion. I’m just perplexed by the selective nature of the moral outrage that has come to the surface in the accompanying comments.

Why is it so wrong to abort this baby on the grounds that she is a baby girl, but not wrong to abort the same baby girl simply on the grounds that she is an unwanted baby? Thousands of baby girls and baby boys are aborted every week, and this doesn’t make the front page of the Telegraph. But the fact that some of them are being aborted because they are baby girls suddenly becomes an issue of national concern – even though if the same baby girls had been aborted for different reasons, this would have gone unquestioned.

I know the possible answers: It’s because one kind of abortion is illegal, but the other is not; it’s because one kind of abortion seems to be chosen for a trivial reason, or a sexist reason, or a reason that arises from an alien culture, etc., but the other seems to be chosen for more weighty and culturally acceptable reasons. It’s because, in the terms of moral philosophy, the motivation behind the decision does in some ways affect the moral character of the act.

But this is what lies at the root of my own perplexity at the selective moral response: the outcome is the same in both cases; the harm done to the ‘baby girl’ (using the language of the Telegraph) is the same in both cases – whether it’s done for apparently trivial reasons (‘she’s the wrong gender’) or apparently more serious reasons (‘we simply can’t cope with another child right now’, etc). The motivation doesn’t make any difference to what actually takes place in each case.

I’m not making a point here about whether abortion is right or wrong (although I do believe that it’s wrong). I’m saying something simpler, in the light of this discussion about sex selection: If it is wrong and morally shocking (because it is wrong to abort a ‘baby girl’ or a ‘baby boy’), then it is still wrong and morally shocking to do it for reasons that are legal, or for reasons that seem more culturally acceptable or serious. It is the same act, the same harm, the same outcome.

Put another way, if we feel moral outrage because a 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the hospital down the road, on the grounds of her sex, why do we not feel a comparable moral outrage because another 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the same hospital on the same day but on different grounds? The selective moral outrage feels a bit narrow, a bit arbitrary – as if there is some kind of wilful blindness.

This is the soundbite from Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, quoted in the same article:

Carrying out an abortion on the grounds of gender alone is in my view morally repugnant.

But why only on these grounds?

And here are some comments from Allison Pearson, also writing in the Telegraph:

Just imagine the idea that babies are being culled because of their gender in the UK today. Unbelievable. Horrifying. Yet, that is precisely what an undercover investigation by this newspaper has revealed – and today, shockingly, we learn that an expert believes the practice is “widespread”. I actually shouted aloud with dismay when I read the stories.

A woman who was 12 weeks pregnant had an appointment with the Calthorpe Clinic and explained to a doctor that she and her partner wished to terminate the pregnancy because they “don’t want a girl”. A certain Dr Raj responded, “That’s not fair. It’s like female infanticide, isn’t it?” He then proceeded calmly to fill out a form for the abortion, casually giving a different reason to the mum and dad simply not fancying a baby girl. “I’ll put too young for pregnancy, yeah?”

Most appalling of all is that the doctor’s response proves he knows that what the woman is proposing is deeply wrong, even criminal, yet he happily suggests another reason to get the abortion done. It’s as though he were penning some excuse for a work sick-note, not aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby when the only thing “wrong” with it is it hasn’t got a willy.

Pearson is so outraged that she ‘shouted aloud with dismay’ when she read the stories. This is a writer who goes on to admit that she supports abortion if it is ‘safe, legal and rare’ (quoting Bill Clinton). I certainly give her credit for writing about the ‘moral coarsening’ that has taken place since abortion became legal in this country, and for reflecting on the “slippery slope leads from guilt-free annual terminations – three for two, anybody? – to a “gender-balancing” service, which helps you plan the perfect family by vacuuming away infants of the wrong sex.”

But Pearson doesn’t shout aloud with dismay if someone else chooses to ‘vacuum away’ a 12 week old ‘infant’ if they are unwanted for another more socially or culturally acceptable reason. That’s what really puzzles me. It could be the same ‘infant’, the same ‘vacuuming away’, the same ‘aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby’ (her language) – but without the outrage.

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After my recent visit, I said would post some information about Pluscarden Abbey.

Do take a look at their website. This is from the home page:

Pluscarden Abbey is the home of a community of Roman Catholic Benedictine monks. It is the only medieval monastery in Britain still inhabited by monks and being used for its original purpose. Situated six miles south-west of Elgin in Moray, the monastery enjoys the peace and stillness of a secluded glen, but is easily reached by road from the town. The atmosphere of quiet reflection and of work dedicated to the glory of God is the same now as it was in the thirteenth century, when a community of monks first came to this part of Moray. If you visit the Abbey today, you can enjoy not only the beauty of its architecture and its setting but also something of the restful atmosphere of devotion that has so deeply permeated this little corner of Scotland.

You can read the fascinating history here, going back to 1230.

Here are some general thoughts about vocation and monastic life:

All men and women are called to love and serve God. They are summoned to strive in prayer and work, as far as they are able, so that by the help of divine grace they may attain to Christian perfection and union with the Holy Trinity. Some are called to serve the world by devoting all their energies to preaching the Gospel and tending the poor and needy. Some are called to bring new life into the world through married love. A few, however, are called in love to “give themselves over to God alone in solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance”; and among these are monks whose “principal duty is to present to the Divine Majesty a service at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery” (Vatican II Perfectae Caritatis 7 & 9).

And some more specific thoughts about Benedictine life:

In the Prologue to his Rule, St Benedict addresses a man thinking of entering the monastery: “Hearken, my son, to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of your heart; freely accept and faithfully fulfil the instructions of a loving father, that by the labour of obedience you may return to him from whom you strayed by the sloth of disobedience. To you are my words now addressed, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to fight for the true King, Christ the Lord”. This perfectly expresses the loving, austere, obedient and humble life of the cloister and, without any compromise, situates the monk on the victorious side in the cosmic battle between good and evil. He fights in this spiritual combat “against the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12) as part of a community, and his warfare is simply and humbly to live the common life of the monastery. For the Benedictine monk, the monastic community is the context for spiritual struggle and growth.

The Prologue ends with a magnificent vision of the monastic life: “Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service; in founding it we hope to set down nothing that is harsh or burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be at once dismayed by fear and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow. But as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged and we shall run with inexpressible sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments; so that, never abandoning his instructions but persevering in his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.”

And if you are interested in joining, read this first:

The first step is to come and stay at the monastery to see the way of life at first hand. A number of visits are usually recommended, but at some time one should contact the Novice Master and discuss one’s feeling of vocation. If both parties believe God is really calling the candidate, the next steps are usually as follows. Firstly the Novice Master offers the chance of a month in the noviciate, to experience life ‘on the inside’. If this works out, a time is fixed for the postulancy to begin, which usually lasts six months. This is followed by a 2-year noviciate, which begins with the rite of monastic initiation during which the novice is given a new name and the tonsure. The noviciate is a period of formation in the monastic life, with classes in the life of prayer, the Holy Rule, Monastic Tradition, the Psalms, Latin and Gregorian Chant, as well as participation in the work of the community. During it the novice is free to leave at any time and may also be asked to leave.

After the end of the noviciate, there is a vote of the community to allow the novice to take temporary vows and receive the white habit. These vows last for a minimum of three years during which time the junior monk receives further formation in Scripture, Catholic Theology and Liturgy, to enable him to live a fruitful monastic life. After another vote of the community he may proceed to Solemn Vows which make him a full member of the community. There is thus ample time, at least five and a half years, to make a free and informed decision to commit oneself to the monastic life as it is lived at Pluscarden. For those who are thus called it is the best way to serve God and the surest way to peace in this life and eternal beatitude in the next.

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This story by Kate Connolly in the Guardian is almost too chilling to believe. It’s like some kind of scare story that has been dreamt up by anti-euthanasia propagandists in order to discredit the whole concept of mercy killing. But – as far as I can learn from browsing the net – it’s true. I’ll just let the story speak for itself. My only comment is to note with gratitude that there are at least some doctors in the Netherlands who ‘refuse to help their patients to die’.

Here is the first section of the main report:

A controversial system of mobile euthanasia units that will travel around the country to respond to the wishes of sick people who wish to end their lives has been launched in the Netherlands.

The scheme, which started on Thursday , will send teams of specially trained doctors and nurses to the homes of people whose own doctors have refused to carry out patients’ requests to end their lives.

The launch of the so-called Levenseinde, or “Life End”, house-call units – whose services are being offered to Dutch citizens free of charge – coincides with the opening of a clinic of the same name in The Hague, which will take patients with incurable illnesses as well as others who do not want to die at home.

The scheme is an initiative by the Dutch Association for a Voluntary End to Life (NVVE), a 130,000-member euthanasia organisation that is the biggest of its kind in the world.

“From Thursday, the Life End clinic will have mobile teams where people who believe they are eligible for euthanasia can register,” Walburg de Jong, a NVVE spokesman, said.

“If they do comply, the teams will be able to carry out the euthanasia at patients’ homes should their regular doctors be unable or refuse to help them,” he added.

The Netherlands was the first country to legalise euthanasia in 2002 and its legislation on the right to die is considered to be the most liberal in the world.

But doctors cannot be forced to comply with the wishes of patients who request the right to die and many do refuse, which was what prompted NVVE to develop a system to fill the gap.

Sick people or their relatives can submit their applications via telephone or email and if the patient’s request fulfils a number of strict criteria, the team is then dispatched.

Legal guidelines state that the person must be incurably sick, be suffering unbearable pain and have expressed the wish to die voluntarily, clearly and on several occasions.

According to De Jong, the team will make contact with the doctor who has refused to help the patient to die and ask what his or her reasons were.

More often than not, he said, the motivations are religious or ethical, adding that sometimes doctors were simply not well enough informed about the law.

If the team is satisfied that the patient’s motives are genuine, they will contact another doctor with whom they will start the euthanasia process.

“They will first give the patient an injection, which will put them into a deep sleep, then a second injection follows, which will stop their breathing and heart beat,” De Jong said.

Every year 2,300 to 3,100 mercy killings are carried out in the Netherlands, although opponents of the practice claim the figure is much higher because many cases are not registered.

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