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Archive for May, 2012

We had a visit to Stonor Park recently. This is the house near Henley where St Edmund Campion was finally caught. It’s full of intricately constructed priest holes and escape routes. It’s also set in a valley of exquisite beauty in the Oxfordshire countryside, and worth a visit even if you are not into the martyrs or recusant history. See their website here for information about visiting.

St Edmund Campion, St Nicholas Owen and St Ralph Sherwin

The highlight for me, with all my interest in media and communication, was to visit the room on the second floor above the front door. This is where the famous printing press stood, on which Campion’s Decem Rationes was printed. It was wonderful to imagine them hidden up there, working without enough type, wondering whether they would even manage to finish and distribute the work. What faith it must have taken, and courage.

Forgive me copying some words from a previous post about Campion and the text, just in case you don’t know the story:

In the Spring of 1581, Edmund Campion had been in England as a Jesuit missionary for just over a year. Fifteen years earlier he had preached before Queen Elizabeth in Oxford, and now he was in Lancashire on the run from government spies. Between illicit sermons and undercover Masses Campion was writing a Latin treatise called Decem Rationes, Ten Reasons, in which he set forth the Catholic faith and challenged his compatriots to debate with him.

Kathleen Jones describes what happened when the manuscript was finished: “It was extremely difficult to get this work printed. Eventually the work was carried out on a secret press at the house of Dame Cecilia Stonor in Stonor Park, Berkshire. Lady Stonor was later to die in prison for her part in this enterprise. Owing to a shortage of type, the treatise had to be set one page at a time, and it took half a dozen typesetters (dressed as gentlemen to disarm suspicion) nine weeks to set it. On Oxford’s Commemoration Sunday, 27 June 1581, four hundred copies were found distributed on the benches of the university church. The publication of Decem Rationes caused a tremendous sensation, and efforts to capture Campion were redoubled” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, Liturgical Press, 2000, 12:3).

You can guess why I wanted to re-tell this well-known story today. We’ve come here to celebrate World Communications Day, and by chance we are doing this on the feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales. It provides a wonderful opportunity to connect these two themes of Christian witness and social communication.

The story of Edmund Campion shows us that any Christian who wants to witness to their faith beyond their immediate circle of family and friends will need to use the communications media. Not just to use them reluctantly, but to embrace them with a passion. For Campion, this meant the printing press. I love the historical detail that they didn’t have enough movable type to set the whole book. Can you imagine the frustration, and the consequent dedication that was required: to set one page, to print it; then to reshuffle type, and print the next page. Six men holed away in a Berkshire manor house for two months. And then the audacity of smuggling the printed texts into Oxford.

Are we, as the Church today, completely engaged with the communications media? Are we realising its potential for good? Are we putting our energy and intelligence into using the media effectively? Our time and people and money? What would Edmund Campion be doing today to communicate his Ten Reasons?

[Andrew Webb adds: I think Campion was arrested at Lyford Grange, not Stonor]

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It seems so obvious: you love someone, marriage is a possibility, you are not 100% sure or 100% ready, so you move in together to test the water and test each other. It will help you, surely, to get to know each other better, to deepen your mutual love, to see whether you are truly compatible, and to lay the foundations for a happy and lasting marriage. It seems so obvious, but it isn’t true.

Lino Print: Map To My House by Matt callow

I’m not speaking about ‘sexual morality’ here (although you can’t separate the moral aspect from everything else); nor am I speaking about a ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ view of marriage. It is simply the psychological and statistical data that show how living together before you get married makes it harder for you to choose the right person and harder to prepare for a lifelong marriage together.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, presents some recent findings in psychology and sociology:

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

But why is this? It’s due to a factor called ‘sliding, not deciding’.

Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.

Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

Jay writes about her own experience of working as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage.

And this is her non-moralising but very practical conclusion:

I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.

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Jenny McCartney “celebrates” the life of Eugene J Polley, the inventor of the TV remote control, who has recently died. Without him, there would be no such thing as channel-hopping. And who knows, if we hadn’t made the leap from watching to hopping, perhaps we wouldn’t have been psychologically or culturally ready for the next leap from hopping channels to surfing the web.

Polley was an engineer at Zenith, where he worked for 47 years. I put “celebrates” in inverted commas, because McCartney thinks he leaves a dubious legacy.

I am old enough to remember what viewing life was like before the remote control hit the UK, in the days when there were only three channels and you had to make the active decision to haul yourself up from the sofa and press a button to alter them. It was better. If someone wanted to change the channel, etiquette usually demanded that they consult the other people in the room, only moving towards the television once agreement was reached. As a result, you stuck with programmes for longer: since it took a modicum of effort to abandon them, and people are naturally lazy, even slow-burning shows were granted the necessary time to draw you in.

With the arrival of the remote control, the power passed to whoever held the magic gadget in his or her hot little hands. Automatically, the holder of the remote was created king of the living room, and everyone else became either a helpless captive, or an angry dissenter. As the number of channels steadily grew, so did the remote-holder’s temptation to flick between the channels with the compulsively restless air of one seeking an elusive televisual fulfilment that could never be found.

Channel-surfing is a guilty pleasure that should only be practised alone. There is nothing worse than sitting in the same room while someone else relentlessly channel-surfs. It makes you feel as if you are going mad. You hear – in rapid succession – a snatch of song, a scrap of dialogue, a woman trying to sell you a cut-price emerald ring, half a news headline, and an advertising jingle. The moment that something sounds like it might interest you, it disappears. Worse, when you yourself are squeezing the remote, you find that you have now developed the tiny attention span of a hyperactive gnat. Is it any surprise that, now that alternative amusements to the television have emerged, family members are challenging the remote-holder’s solitary rule and decamping to the four corners of the family home with their iPads and laptops?

I know that lamenting the invention of the remote control will – in the eyes of some – put me in the same risibly fuddy-duddy camp as those who once preferred the horse and cart to the motor car, yearned for the days when “we made our own fun”, and said that this email nonsense would never catch on. I don’t care. Listen to me, those of you who cannot imagine life without the zapper: it really was better before.

I think the phrase ‘surfing the web’ is misleading and actually disguises the fragmentary nature of the typical internet experience. If you go surfing (I went once!) you wait patiently and let a lot of inadequate waves pass underneath your board, but as soon as you spot the right wave, ‘your’ wave, you paddle with all your might to meet it properly, leap onto the board, and then ride that wave for as long as you can.

When you find a wave, in other words, you stay with it. You are so with it and trying not to fall off it that it’s inconceivable that you would be looking out of the corner of your eye for a better one. That’s the joy of surfing – the waiting, the finding, and then the 100% commitment to the wave that comes.

That’s why the phrase ‘surfing the web’ doesn’t work for me. The joy of the web, and the danger, is that you can hop off the page at any time, as soon as you see anything else vaguely interesting or distracting. You are half-surfing a particular page, but without any physical or emotional commitment. You can move away to something better or more interesting – that’s the miracle of the web, what it can throw up unexpectedly. But it means that one part of you is always looking over the horizon, into the other field, where to go next; as if non-commitment to the present moment, a kind of existential disengagement, is a psychological precondition of using the internet.

As you know, I am not against the internet. I just wonder what long-term effects it has on us and on our culture. On the internet, everything is provisional. So if we see everything else through the lens of our internet experience, then it all becomes provisional – including, perhaps, even our relationships.

Maybe that’s the word to ponder: ‘provisionality’.

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When I told a friend I had been at the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, she told me I should read Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line.

If you haven’t heard of it, here is the blurb:

Abby Johnson quit her job in October 2009. That simple act became a national news story because Abby was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas who, after participating in her first actual abortion procedure, walked across the road to join the Coalition for Life.

Unplanned is a heart stopping personal drama of life-and-death encounters, a courtroom battle, and spiritual transformation that speaks hope and compassion into the political controversy that surrounds this issue. Telling Abby’s story from both sides of the abortion clinic property line, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the life versus rights debate and helping women who face crisis pregnancies.

In many ways it’s a simple story, simply told. She’s young, idealistic, naive, and a little bit damaged; she ends up working for Planned Parenthood almost by accident; she’s good with people and good at her job; she’s increasingly uneasy about what she is doing and what the organisation stands for; and this is brought to a head when she’s asked to participate directly in an abortion procedure because they need another pair of hands in the theatre.

It’s not a story of a radical pro-abortion campaigner having a sudden conversion; it’s more about how an ordinary person without strong moral convictions and without a habit of reflection can drift into this world and find themselves standing in a place they don’t really want to be. I was struck by her apparent innocence, her naivety; and then by the courageous way she reacted when she knew she was in the wrong place.

You learn a lot about Planned Parenthood and the reality of day-to-day life in an abortion clinic. You see, in a non-judgmental way, how much of this work is motivated by sincerity and misplaced compassion; and it is a credit to Johnson that she writes with kindness and respect for her former colleagues. You also get an insight into the ongoing development of the pro-life movement in the States, and the genuine charity and concern that motivates those involved in the vigil outside the clinic where Johnson worked.

The drama of her final conversion, and her decision to cross the line and seek help from those on the other side is incredibly moving.

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I’ve been thinking about Simone Lia’s graphic novel Please God, Find Me A Husband! And especially about how the comic/cartoon format allows her to express herself, even to bare her soul, in a way that is unusually unguarded. There is a childlike simplicity about what is expressed within each speech bubble, even a naivety.

Somehow it works. It doesn’t feel like an awkward confessional novel; it doesn’t feel inappropriate or embarrassing. It’s as if the inner child that sits within each adult experience is allowed to speak. The simple truth put into simple words, without self-censorship, without filtering it for the hearer. Not everything in adult life, of course, is simple; but lots of it is – and we often make it complicated, for a thousand personal and social reasons.

It reminds me of two personal experiences. One is having to speak in a foreign language when you are no good at it. I went to Rome for my seminary formation, and the time given to learning Italian in those days was woefully inadequate. But it meant I had to form relationships, sometimes quite deep ones, using two tenses and just a few hundred words.

At one level I was constantly not being myself, because I could never say what I really meant; but at another level I was being more simply myself (or being more my simple self) because I had to become less eloquent, less considered, more straightforward, more childlike. If you only know a few words, you have to say what you mean crudely and clumsily, and sometimes this is less truthful, but sometimes it can be more truthful as well.

The other experience is of preaching to children when there are adults present, say at a ‘Family Mass’ on a Sunday morning in a parish when there are more children than adults, or a school Mass with parents and teachers present. You are aiming your sermon, for example, at a five or seven year old; you are simplifying your language, slowing down, trying to choose appropriate images and ideas, cutting out the flannel. You are speaking, almost, in the language of a graphic novel or a strip cartoon. Not being patronising, but trying to talk at the right level in an appropriate ‘voice’.

And the strange effect of this is that often you are more able to communicate Gospel truths to the adults who are present, because you are letting go of all the stuff that gets in the way. You are following the KISS rule, without realising it: ‘Keep It Simple Stupid!’

This is usually an unintended effect – reaching the adults through the children. But sometimes I have quite consciously said something to the children in simple, unadorned, unnuanced language, with the specific intention of speaking a hard truth to the adults, or a truth that would be harder to express in the context of ordinary adult discourse.

Gillian Wearing brought this ‘inner child honesty’ to the fore with her 1992-93 series that was called “Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say”. You can see a slideshow of her own selection of photos here. And you can see a wonderful selection of ‘sign photos’ here, sent in by Guardian readers and selected by Gillian Wearing herself.

I’m not suggesting the world would be a better place if everyone bared their soul to the first stranger they met each morning, or that some kind of therapeutic nirvana can necessarily be found in heartfelt self-disclosure. I’m just reflecting on how we can often be too complicated, too eloquent; and how a medium like a graphic novel or a children’s sermon can allow us to release a hidden voice that can sometimes touch others and communicate something important.

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Spirit in the City is coming up soon: June 7-9 in central London. I gave a talk to the team about ‘practical evangelisation’: what does it mean to evangelise and how do we actually do it, with particular reference to the various forms of evangelisation that are a part of Spirit in the City.

You can listen to the talk here. It’s only half an hour.

The full programme to Spirit in the City is here.

And in case you haven’t seen their new video, take a look at this – it gives you a real flavour of the event:

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It’s an old trick, and a common childhood game – to cut out an adult head from a magazine photograph and paste it onto the body of a baby. Evian use it on their latest bus-stop advertising campaign.

The first visual message, very boring, is that if you drink a litre of Evian water you will be as stunningly beautiful and alarmingly thin as this model. The second message, slightly tongue-in-cheek, together with the Live Young caption in the corner and the baby’s body T-shirt, is that you will retain the youthfulness, innocence, playfulness and perfect skin that you had when you were a little baby.

The subliminal pro-life message, paid for by Evian, is philosophical: whatever you think about the ‘personhood’ of a baby, this baby is you; you are the same human being; it’s one continuous life; looking backwards – once you were a baby and now you have become an adult; looking forwards – this is the baby who will become (if it survives) an adult.

When I look at a photo of myself at 15 years old, or 5 years, or 5 months, or when I look at an ultrasound scan image of myself at 36 weeks, or 24, or 12 – I say ‘this is me’. It’s a hugely different me, but it’s still me. I ‘identify’ (at a personal level) with this image, with this human being, because there is an ‘identity’ (at a biological and philosophical level) between me today and me back then; just as I identify with the me who existed 2 minutes ago. Identity doesn’t undermine difference – of course there are differences. It just allows you to affirm, at a deeper level, a continuity of existence, and gives you a sound reason for saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘we are the same person’.

The poster reminds you of the continuity between the adult ‘you’ and the infant ‘you’. It doesn’t take much to then make the link between the infant ‘you’ and the ‘you’ in the womb. And that reminds you of the importance of remembering that the human being in the womb is another ‘you’ and not just an ‘it’.

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The book we were reading during the retreat, by the way, was The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints, by Robert Ellsberg.

I’ve always liked Ellsberg’s writing, and he is the one who has brought Dorothy Day so much closer to us by editing and publishing her letters and diaries.

This is the blurb about the retreat book from the US publishers.

In All Saints—published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind—Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints to answer the questions: What is happiness, and how might we find it?

Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists in a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of “lessons” in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship, and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives.

In these “lessons,” our guides are the saints: historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of “life in abundance,” the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.

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We had a week of silent retreat at the end of last month. Silence, of course, doesn’t mean silence; it means no talking. During meals it meant the clatter of cutlery and the slurping of coffee at breakfast, a selection of classical music at supper, and someone reading to us over lunch – in the monastic tradition.

A pulpit in the refectory of a Carmelite friary in Malta, where a friar would read to the community during meals

It’s very rare, as an adult, that you just sit back (or hunch forward over your lunch) and have someone read to you. One part of the mind is concentrating on the words, and enjoying the language and thoughts and stories. Another part is able to be more attentive than usual to the surroundings, to the senses – the taste of the food, the sheer physical presence of the person opposite you, the sounds of the room and the world outside. And another part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, falls into a semi-conscious slumber, like when you are sitting on the back seat of the car as a child, gazing out the window, as your parents talk about important things you only vaguely understand.

And the soul, somehow, at least in the context of a retreat like this, can be liberated into a kind of domestic contemplation, a stillness that you carry from the chapel into the dining room, that isn’t disturbed by the need to chat over lunch.

It reminds me of the film The Reader (I haven’t read the original novel), where the central part of their complicated relationship is her request to be read to (I won’t give any plot away!). And one of the parents who helped me with the parents booklet gave this simple advice:

Encourage your children to read. Go to the library with them. And continue to read aloud to them, even if they can read well themselves. It gives you an opportunity to talk and learn and grow together. You can usually find a book to read to children of different ages, so your children can be together in this way now and then.

So it’s good to be read to now and then!

Do you have any moments, as an adult, when someone reads to you, or when you are in a group that is being read to? I think it’s quite rare, but I might be wrong.

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I’ve always liked Ron Mueck’s hyper-realist sculptures – his gigantic ‘Boy’ was the best thing in the whole Millennium Dome. His latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth consists of just four pieces, but I spent a good hour entranced by just two of them, ‘Woman with Sticks’ and ‘Drift’, which form a kind of diptych. Taken together they offer a profound meditation on what it means to be human.

In the first, a naked middle-aged woman grapples with a bundle of sticks twice her size. She’s weary, but strong. Her body is marked with the scratches of the struggle. Her face glances to the side, betraying her exhaustion, but also a defiant joy, an impish delight at having achieved, finally, the unreasonable task set before her. The curve of her body, arching back against the weight of the load, meets the line of the branches, the woman almost merging with creation, and in geometric terms creating a glorious organic tangent – you know how much I like tangents!

What is this task? We don’t know. The exhibition notes talk about the woman tackling ‘the near impossible tasks set in fairytales and legends’. For me, she seems to represent the human person struggling with the self, with creation, with existence itself. Her back is bent almost to breaking point, but she is still standing – and that’s the defiant point. She is Atlas carrying the world. She’s the ordinary person, and the Olympic warrior. And if the sticks represent a more specific symbolic task, like in a fairytale, I was imagining her collecting them to provide thatch for her roof, or kindling for a mighty conflagration. In other words, she could have been building a home or lighting a beacon or setting the whole world aflame; she could have been embracing either life, or death. And going further, perhaps because this came up in our retreat last month, she was also Abraham and Isaac taking the wood up the mountain for the sacrifice, unsure about where they would discover the sacrificial offering.

The second piece, ‘Drift’, is described in the exhibition notes as “a small-scale sculpture of a lightly tanned man sporting tropical swim shorts and dark sunglasses, lying on a lilo with his arms outstretched. Instead of floating in a swimming pool, ‘Drift’ is installed high on the gallery wall, seeming to disappear off into the distance. Held up only by a puff of air and a sheet of plastic, the precariousness of ‘Drift’ provokes questions of the brevity of life.”

It’s a middle-aged Jack Nicholson, with the same Nicholson smugness and self-satisfaction. He is completely indifferent to the world, almost comatose with leisure. Or he is just a loving and hard-working man at the end of a busy year getting his well deserved rest, freed from the cares and responsibilities of the world. I’m not sure. There is an air of disengagement, even of anomie, reinforced by the title. And remember that this three-quarter size figure ‘lying’ on the lilo is placed vertically on a huge wall of turquoise. You confront this sculpture as a secular crucifix – he is there, high above you, in a cruciform figure. He is crucified by his own inertia and indifference, by the nothingness of his surroundings, by isolation and meaninglessness.

She is alive – gloriously alive – in her mythical battle to the edge of death. He is dead – existentially dead – in his holiday coma. She is taking her prey home in a clumsy march of triumph, staggering under the weight of her struggle. He is drifting up to the ceiling, into nowhere, weightless, without direction or purpose. What a beautiful meditation on what it is to be human, on the poles that we drift between over a lifetime, and sometimes within a single day. I could have stayed there for hours, and I am determined to go back before it closes. How heartbreaking that these pieces are for sale, and they may well end up in private hands, never to be seen again!

I don’t think Rachel Campbell-Johnston was fair in her Times review to say that Mueck’s sculptures, for all their phenomenal detail, have no soul, and that the spectator gets stuck on the surface. I can’t explain why, but my response to his work has always been very different – to ‘Boy’, to the wonderful National Gallery exhibition when he was artist in residence there, and to one or two other pieces I have seen over the years. I find myself drawn into the mystery of these oversized or undersized human beings. The detail doesn’t become a distraction for me, it’s more like a doorway. The figures are so lifelike that you almost feel you are in conversation with them. There is a presence about them, and an inner stillness, that is unlike any other representation in art that I can think of.

In fact the memory they bring back is of the Tilda Swinton exhibition in Rome in the late 1990s, when I was at seminary there. I missed the original sleeping beauty performance in the Serpentine in London, but in Rome she lay asleep in a glass exhibition case for a few mornings. Yes, it was voyeuristic – by definition. But it brought the same sense of presence to another person, in their sleep and hiddenness, that Mueck’s sculptures bring. The size helps as well. I prefer the three-quarter size figures, because there is a distancing – as if you are looking at yourself from the corner of the room – without any significant diminishment.

You can see that I am a fan. I wish there were more of Mueck’s work to see publically. I wish these two sculptures could be bought for a British gallery somehow, and put on permanent display. I’d love to buy them for a church, or maybe a church foyer; but I’m not in a church at the moment, and I don’t have the money! The exhibition is on only until 26 May. Details here. It’s easy to get to, at 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET, not far from Oxford Circus or Piccadilly tube stations.

There are two other sculptures. ‘Youth’ is magnificent, but I’d need another visit to give it time, and another post to write about it. ‘Still Life’ (a giant dead chicken) I don’t much care for – it loses the human, obviously! Despite all the metaphors and meanings, it doesn’t draw me into the soul of the person as the others do. Three out of four isn’t bad.

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So this is the week in which Barack Obama came out in favour of ‘gay marriage’, the Queen remained silent (in her address to parliament), David Cameron seemed a little less sure about where this is going politically (despite the renewed commitments of equalities minister Lynne Featherstone), and Mitt Romney reaffirmed his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In an editorial this morning the Times said this is ‘a cornerstone issue of civil rights’. You can see how this ‘framing’ of the question closes down any serious debate; it turns it into a battle between the good people who are for civil rights and the bad people who are against them; it completely avoids the much more serious and consequential issue of whether this proposed legislation in favour of same-sex ‘marriage’ will actually change the nature of marriage and the family or not, and what the effects of this change will be for individuals and for society. The Times doesn’t acknowledge that you are not just giving an apparent right to gay people, you are also redefining – for every person and for the whole of society - the nature of marriage and the family as it has been almost universally understood.

There is still time to respond to the Government’s consultation – see the link here. And to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition here.

There is no space for lengthy replies on the consultation website – they limit the word count quite strictly. It’s good in some ways, because it means you have to clarify your thoughts and cut out the flannel.

Here is the reply I wrote for the consultation, and sent to my MP:

I am against this proposal for five reasons.

First, it radically transforms the meaning of marriage for all couples (not just same-sex couples) and turns it into simply a committed relationship between any two consenting adults.

Second, it makes different forms of family life equivalent, and disregards the evidence that it is in the best interests of children to be brought up by their own natural/biological parents. Marriage between a man and a woman is the only relationship that allows children to be conceived by their own natural/biological parents and raised in that lifelong family unit, which is why it is given a special status. This is not a prejudice but a natural reality.

Third, this proposal will increase prejudice and intolerance against those who believe and teach that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Fourth, it drives a wedge between civil and religious views of marriage, which can only harm society. At present there is a single understanding of marriage, shared by both religious and non-religious people, but celebrated in different contexts (civil or religious).

Fifth, this proposal has been ‘forced’ onto the political agenda; it was not in any party manifestos; it is not a pressing political issue for most people; and 70% of people support the traditional understanding of marriage (according to a recent poll).

[This is slightly over the consultation word count, so I had to cut a couple of phrases - I can't remember which!]

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Wow! It is absolutely breathtaking, and well worth a detour if you are passing nearby on the tube, or even a dedicated trip! The new Kings Cross concourse, stuck on the side of the station in the most unlikely manner, somehow works; and of course it’s all in the roof. I wandered round with neck craned upwards like a child seeing stars for the first time. It’s awe-inspiring, and intimate, and gloriously silly and funny at the same time.

Here are some of pictures:

Here is a more sober but equally positive reflection from Rowan Moore:

With the new western concourse at King’s Cross station, designed by John McAslan and Partners, the big metal roof is coming home. It is sited between two famous examples of the genre, King’s Cross station of 1852 and the later, more daring, St Pancras station, of 1868, and it is part of the £500m creation of a “transport super-hub”, completed in time for the Olympics, when hundreds of thousands will pass through here on their way to the Javelin train from St Pancras to Stratford.

It is a large semi-circular addition to the flank of the old station, with a basic if essential purpose: to allow enough space for increasingly large numbers of passengers to move freely and smoothly as they emerge from the underground or enter from the street, buy tickets and catch their trains. It is a departures space only, as in airports, with arriving passengers exiting through the original front door of the station. It replaces the existing concourse, a low, crowded 1970s structure of dim design, that has never been loved for the way it blots the view of the plain, handsome twin-arched front of the original station. This structure will disappear later this year, allowing the creation of a new forecourt.

The concourse distributes people in one direction to the main line platforms, in another to suburban lines, and also allows a more leisurely route up some escalators, along a balcony where you can dally in various restaurants and on to a footbridge across the tracks of the old station, from which you can descend to your platform. It smooths out knots and anomalies in the previous arrangements and triples the space available for circulation. It also has space for shopping, without which no contemporary public work would be complete.

Meanwhile, the original glass roof has been cleaned up and had its glass restored, while unnecessary clutter in the space below has been removed, making it more bright and airy than it has looked at any time since it opened, 160 years ago. The effect is dazzling, of seeing this familiar, eternally grubby place transformed. It is as if you had just popped a perception-enhancing pill or been granted an extra faculty of sight.

But the main event of the new work is the half-cylinder of the new concourse and its roof, which has a span of 52 metres. Its structure, engineered by Arup, rises up a great steel stalk in the centre and then spreads into a tree-like canopy of intersecting branches, before descending into a ring of supports at the circumference. In so doing, it avoids the need to drop columns into the ticket hall of the underground station underneath the main space. Beneath the canopy, a sinuous pavilion in glass and tile takes care of the retail.

“It is the greatest station building, ever,” declares architect John McAslan, who is not shy of speaking things as he sees them, and it is certainly impressive. Its main effect is a mighty oomph as you enter, from whatever direction, caused by the abundance of space and the unity of the structure. It is big and single-minded and has a generosity to which we have grown unused.

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I’ve posted about the Catholic Voices project a few times recently. See here about the launch of their book; and here for a history of the project on audio.

If you have been interested in the work they do, and wondered if you could get involved in any way, applications are now open for the Third National Speakers Training, which is taking place in the West of England over three weekends between September and December 2012.

Here is the text from their website.

Catholic Voices was originally created for the 2010 papal visit, when 25 ‘ordinary’ Catholics received training in communications techniques and media skills, as well as in-depth briefings on the neuralgic issues behind most news stories concerning the Church. The ‘Catholic Voices’ appeared on more than 100 programmes at the time of the visit, and continue to give interviews on TV and radio. The project has led to books, similar projects abroad, the Catholic Voices ‘Academy’, regular communications workshops and talks, and the enthusiastic backing of both bishops and broadcasters.

The heart of the project remains our ambition to create, each year, a growing number of trained Catholic Voices (CVs) who, together with the original team, make themselves available to comment on radio and television. In Autumn last year a second ‘National Speakers’ Training’ took place in Leeds over three weekends; the 18 new CVs have joined the original CVs in making regular media appearances (many of which are recorded and uploaded to this website).

This year, the third National Speakers’ Training will be held, following the same three-weekend format, at retreat houses in Clifton and Plymouth dioceses (Emmaus in Bristol, Ammerdown nr Bath, and Buckfast Abbey in Devon). Although we hope to receive applications from these and neighbouring dioceses (Menevia, Cardiff, etc.) you are welcome to apply from anywhere in England and Wales. The training is free, but we ask participants to pay for their travel and accommodation if they are able.

We welcome applications from any practising, committed Catholics aged between 20 and 45; who are available on all three training weekends and one of the interview dates; who believe they may have a calling as a Catholic Voice; and who will offer themselves after the training for interviews on a variety of topics.

Dates: Interviews will be on 10 September in Bristol and 15 September in London. The three residential weekends, each lasting from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, will be: 21-23 September, 19-21 October, and 14-16 December.

If you would like to be considered for the CV national speakers’ training, please email info@catholicvoices.org.uk for an application form and further details. Deadline for applications is 20 July 2012. In the meantime, please direct any queries to the same email address.

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Great news for Hitchcock fans: a massive retrospective at the British Film Institute this summer.

Mark Brown reports:

Alfred Hitchcock is to be celebrated like never before this summer, with a retrospective of all his surviving films and the premieres of his newly restored silent films – including Blackmail, which will be shown outside the British Museum.

The BFI on Tuesday announced details of its biggest ever project: celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.”

One of the highlights of the season will be the culmination of a three-year project to fully restore nine of the director’s silent films. It will involve The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock’s first, being shown at Wilton’s Music Hall; The Ring at Hackney Empire, and Blackmail outside the British Museum, where the film’s climactic chase scene was filmed in 1929, both inside the building and on the roof.

For me, the excitement is not really about the restorations, it’s simply about seeing all the classics on the big screen. Can you believe that I have only ever seen Rear Window on DVD?

Between August and October the BFI will show all 58 surviving Hitchcock films including his many films made in the UK – The 39 Steps, for example, and The Lady Vanishes – and those from his Hollywood years, from Rebecca in 1940 to Vertigo in 1957, The Birds in 1963 and his penultimate film, Frenzy, in 1972.

And Psycho, of course. “Psycho is a great work of modern art,” said Stewart. “Who hasn’t stood in the shower and had a little moment.”

Special guests during the Genius of Hitchcock season will include Tippi Hedren, the hapless victim of bird attacks in the film of the same name, and Bruce Dern who starred with Hedren in Marnie

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Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life introduced me to a huge collection of classical music I hadn’t heard before. There is one piece I can’t get out of my head, even months later – it just comes to me in the street, and brings back the pathos and beauty of the whole film.

I finally looked it up this morning. First, I found this great page from THE PLAYLIST that lists ‘all 37 songs’ featured in the film, and has links to recordings of many of them. Then I found the track that has been haunting me, which turns out to be: Pièces de clavecin, Book II 6e Ordre N°5: Les Barricades Mistérieuses, by Francois Couperin (1668-1733).

Here is one version:

And another on piano:

Does anyone know anything about Couperin?

OK, I know this can get a bit obsessive, the YouTube browsing, but here is the last version I’ll post, my favourite so far, which is slightly slower, and much more captivating for that.

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I reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s latest book in the Tablet recently. My very first post, nearly three years ago, referred to a passage about wonder in her extraordinary novel Gilead.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays about subjects as diverse as Calvinist theology, evolutionary psychology, American hymnody, Japanese economics, growing up in small-town Idaho, and the decline of democracy. You may not have a passionate interest in all or any of these topics, but the book is still well worth reading, because her deepest concern is always to understand what it means to be human, what it means to confront the reality around us, and what lies just beyond the boundaries, in ‘the vast terrain of what cannot be said’.

I won’t copy the whole review here, but here is a passage about Robinson’s distinctive interest in religion:

I doubt that there are many self-professed ‘unreconstructed liberals’ who wear their Calvinism on their sleeve. Robinson is never preachy, but it’s clear how her Christian faith informs her view of things. Religion, for her, is not a cosy enclave, but a disruptive force, which expands and shatters the narrow definitions we would otherwise have of ourselves and our world.

The story of God’s extravagant, wondrous love casts a ‘saturating light’ over the whole of human history. Even original sin, which seems such a pessimistic idea, points to ‘the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God’.

Theology, in other words, leads us back to anthropology – to our understanding of the human person. Robinson laments the loss of the word ‘soul’ in contemporary discourse, and has a clear-sighted view of how human dignity needs some external theistic foundation if it is to be defended. Why? Because any notion of human ‘exceptionalism’ needs to anchor our nature, our dignity, ‘in a reality outside the world of circumstance’.

When the Declaration of Independence states ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’, it makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, ‘and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization’. Religion, in this context, stops our thinking from becoming too narrow or domineering.

Robinson is a debunker of lazy ideologies. She is incensed by the reductionist assumptions implicit in so much contemporary thought. Evolutionary psychology, for example, focusses its attention on the adaptations it claims allowed human beings to survive on the primordial savannah – but marginalises everything else about us. For Robinson, our humanity consists in the fact that we do more than survive. ‘This kind of thinking places everything remarkable about us in the category “accidental”.’

So yes, I’m recommending it. But even more so, I’d recommend Gilead.

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There is an informative, positive and completely uncynical article in yesterday’s Times by Ruth Gledhill about how more and more women from the UK are entering religious orders. For those of you without a Times subscription it’s reprinted here in the Australian.

The attraction of religious life to young women today

First of all she looks at the figures:

UNTIL recently, nuns in Britain had fallen out of the habit. In parts of the country, years went by without any women seeking to get themselves to a nunnery. Then, suddenly, convents have reported a spike in interest.

It is not huge in numbers; but in significance it is of a new order. In the past three years the number of women entering the religious life has nearly tripled from six to 17 and there are also many more who have entered convents but have not not yet taken their initial vows. This influx is thought to be a result of the Pope’s visit to Britain last year. Such has been the sudden surge in inquiries that religious orders have had to ask bishops how to cope, so unused to receiving new vocations have they become, and so accepting of the received wisdom that, with many convents closing and being sold off, their way of life was likely to be coming to an end.

Now, if these inquiries result in more women taking their vows and becoming novices, numbers could edge back up to where they were in the early 1980s, when more than a hundred women a year took vows as sisters in enclosed and other religious orders.

This week, the media have reported that even a former girlfriend of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has become a nun called Sister John Mary. “I thought of marriage … then God called,” Laura Adshead, 44, told a television documentary about the Benedectine order she joined, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in the Connecticut hills in the US.

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation, adds some comments:

Many people today, especially the young, find it difficult to listen to their deepest spiritual desires, so the Church needs to offer a structured approach to vocation if the call of Christ is to be heard by more people.

It’s against a background that’s surprisingly upbeat given the general perception of the state of the clergy and religious life in this country. In the last few years, the number of people applying to seminaries has been gradually increasing and, in more recent years, just in the last couple of years, ever since the Papal visit, the number of women approaching women’s congregations has also been increasing.

[It was not fully reflected yet in the figures because it takes time from an initial approach to become a novice, said Father Jamison]. But it is certainly more than anecdotal. There are congregations of women who have been contacting us to say, ‘Could you help us because it’s been a while since we’ve had this sort of response’, and so we are now happily supporting them in dealing with an increase.

Judith Eydmann, development co-ordinator of the National Office for Vocation, gives some interpretation:

“For young women it is not just the life that is attractive. They feel that it is what Christ has called them to, the total dedication of their lives to the service of God. We have moved away from a model of recruitment to one of discernment and that gives people a safe environment in which they can make safe choices.”

She says new Catholic movements such as Youth 2000 have been key to the increase. Among the general Catholic population of more than five million across the UK, about 10 per cent have had contact with new movements but among those entering monasteries, convents and seminaries, the proportion is 50 per cent. In a further new development, one in five of the new vocations are converts to Catholicism, compared with the 1970s when nearly all those seeking to become priests, monks or nuns were cradle Catholics.

And here is Ruth Gledhill’s uncynical and unironic signing off:

Whether these newly formed nuns are finding God, or God is finding them, the religious life is coming back into fashion as one that offers not so much riches, but a way of life exemplified by courage, wisdom and serenity – not bad for women who might be tempted to think they haven’t a prayer.

The only puzzle is why the huge photograph advertising the article on the cover page of Times 2 is clearly of a model posing as a nun – it’s way too posed, and the habit and crucifix are complemented by plenty of lip-gloss and eye-liner. Why didn’t they take the trouble to find a photograph of a real nun? That’s not a criticism of the article, just a question!

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Well, that last phrase from the title isn’t strictly true. But the booklet Being a Parent Today is finally printed and for sale from the Catholic Truth Society, so you can order copies from their website here. You can flick through some of the pages of the booklet on the CTS site.

We really hope that this will be a resource not just for individuals, but also that schools and parishes will be able to distribute them to parents they are working with – e.g. parents whose children are starting at the school, or the parents of children on the First Holy Communion programme etc.

Here is the cover:

Here is the Introduction:

INTRODUCTION: How Not To Use This Booklet

Every child is different. Every parent is different.

Being a parent is not about learning a set of rules and putting them into practice like a robot. It’s about living in the messy reality of everyday life. It’s about loving your children as best you can – with all your strengths and weaknesses, and with all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s sometimes about just getting to the end of the day! And it often unfolds by instinct, or by accident, rather than by following some master-plan.

This booklet is not a manual telling you how to be a good parent. It’s a collection of thoughts and ideas from ordinary mothers and fathers, based on their own experiences of bringing up their children. And it includes a few extra thoughts from one or two Catholic priests, deacons and lay-people who have spent time supporting families in different ways.

It’s meant to be like a conversation between friends – swapping stories, sharing ideas, laughing about things that have happened, supporting each other when things have been difficult. If you are stumbling through family life, it can be reassuring to know that others are stumbling through beside you; and it can help to know what they are learning along the way.

Everyone needs encouragement. Sometimes an idea or suggestion can make you think about something in a new way, or inspire you to try something you haven’t tried before. The hope is that this booklet will help you to think about the amazing vocation that you have as parents. It may give you some ideas for your own family life. It may simply help you to appreciate more what you are already living.

If you disagree with something written here, that’s fine! The disagreement might help you see more clearly what’s important in your own family and what works for you, and it might lead to some good discussions with your friends. What works for one person might not work for another. And what worked yesterday might not work today. Family life is incredibly fluid and unpredictable.

The booklet was written mainly with Catholic parents and children in mind. Some of the sections are about the place of faith and prayer in family life and raising children. These parts will be particularly useful for Catholic families, and parents whose children go to Catholic schools. But many sections of the booklet should be helpful for all parents, whatever their faith.

It doesn’t go into important questions about raising children on your own, or separation within the family, or bereavement. These topics are too big and too specific for this kind of booklet, even though some of the ideas here should be helpful for people in these situations.

This booklet comes with a health warning: Whatever you do, don’t read it through from start to finish! If you do, it will seem like a list of rules (which will leave you feeling incredibly guilty and inadequate). Or it will seem like a huge ‘to do’ list (which will just leave you feeling worn out). This is a booklet to dip into – just to take one or two thoughts and see what they mean for you. And then come back to it another time.

Here are the chapter headings in case you are wondering what it is actually all about:

  1. Children and Childhood
  2. Parenting and Family Life
  3. Activities and Celebrations
  4. Talking and Listening
  5. Discipline and Boundaries
  6. Religion and Faith
  7. Meals and Food
  8. Making Space and Taking Time
  9. Praying Alone and Praying Together
  10. Chastity and Sex Education
  11. TV and Internet
  12. Church and Sunday Mass
  13. Education and School
  14. Yourself and Your Relationships
  15. Difficulties and Problems
  16. Failure and Forgiveness
  17. Love and Kindness
  18. Prayers to Learn and to Treasure

And here are a couple of page shots to show you how Simone Lia’s beautiful illustrations work with the text:

If you are able to support this project, especially the work of Ten Ten in their schools outreach, see the background in the post here, and the information about how to donate to Ten Ten.

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