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Archive for August, 2012

I’ve just spent five days in a field a mile outside Walsingham, where the annual Youth 2000 summer festival took place last weekend. This little village, as one of the speakers said, is not just in the middle of nowhere; it’s on the very outer fringes of nowhere, and it’s a miracle that anyone gets there at all. (Apologies for this very London-centric view of North Norfolk…)

A glimpse of the congregation before Mass

One of the young people arriving said they had got into a conversation in a shop on the way, and when they said they were going to a youth festival, the other person asked, ‘So who is headlining then?’ No-one could agree on the best answer: Jesus, the Bishop, or the Youth 2000 Music Ministry.

It’s a time of grace, of witnessing the beauty of the Christian faith, and of real conversion. It’s also a very ordinary experience of the Church, and by that I mean there is nothing extraordinary about the content of the weekend. It’s just Catholicism pure and simple. That’s probably why it ‘works’, and why it makes such a profound impression on people. The Eucharist at the very centre; dignified and joyful worship; devotion to Our Lady; the teaching of the Catholic Church presented in a straightforward, unapologetic, inspiring and practical way; the power of conversion through the sacrament of confession; the challenge of connecting faith with everyday life, study, work, relationships; the call to vocation, witness and service; prayer, music, food, fellowship, fun.

Keeping vigil during the night before the Exposed Blessed Sacrament

You see young people serving other young people, and witnessing to their own personal faith. It was striking, as well, how many people were here for the first time – brought by someone who had come before and wanted to share the experience. You see a wonderful integration of the different vocations of lay people, priests, and religious and consecrated people. One of the lovely small innovations this year was creating a cafe-style atmosphere in the dining tent, so that people could relax together in the evening when the services had finished. Another innovation was the hot showers!

It’s easy to make a list of all the events and activities that take place; it’s harder to describe the almost tangible sense of faith and spiritual joy that permeates the main tent when nearly a thousand people are there worshipping the Lord in silence or in song, or listening to the Word of God opened up for them, or hearing a teenager describe the moment when they really began to believe and to see their life changing through the touch of Christ.

There are many wonderful initiatives for renewal and evangelisation taking place within the Catholic Church in our country – this is just one of them. They all point to a genuine renewal in the Church, a sense that something important is happening, that lives are really being changed. The catechetical blog “Transformed in Christ” catches something of this in these reflections on the festival:

One of the beautiful things about Youth 2000 is that it brings you right back again to the fresh experience of conversion. It brings you back to basics – being simple and humble, open and intimate with Christ. It is so beautiful to see this journey beginning in young souls. I don’t have dramatic experiences of God’s love anymore like I did when I was going to retreats at 17 and 18. God needed to get my attention back then, and now my faith has deepened and strengthened, so now it is more a daily experience of his love in my life.

But on Sunday night, we heard testimony after testimony from young people, all aged between 16 and 21, of the powerful experiences of God’s love they had received through Confession and the Eucharist. They often articulated them nervously, but an authentic, unmediated experience of joy, peace and freedom from having just been touched by Christ, radiated from each one.

I am sure that, this hidden work of the Holy Spirit and the open response of each individual, young soul is the most precious thing in the whole Church, the whole world!

When I was 17 I didn’t quite realise how precious it was, and perhaps those young people who with such courage and faith got up to give their testimony, don’t either. No one gets to see these miracles within souls. The humility of the Lord in working in such a hidden way is exquisite. But this is exactly what is beautiful about being a Catholic – the joy of being touched by Christ. If we ever lose sight of that, we are lost!

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I was at a beautiful wedding recently, and I had a small moment of revelation about the meaning of wearing a wedding ring. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my understanding was turned completely upside down.

I’ve always thought that wearing a wedding ring was a sign of the commitment you are making to your spouse and to your marriage. Not to pretend that it all depends on you – because it’s about a relationship and a vocation, and about God’s blessing on that relationship. But to see the wearing of the ring as a constant sign of your own re-dedication and re-commitment to this relationship, and to make this continuing acknowledgement of your marital commitment public by wearing a ring. The ring becomes, as it were, a public profession of your marriage and what it continues to mean to you. This is why in those films (cf. Bruce Willis in the first scene of Unbreakable), when a husband meets a stranger on a train and starts plotting how he might hook up with her, he quietly slips his wedding ring off and puts it in his pocket.

But I heard the words of the wedding rite as if for the first time, and this is absolutely not what the wearing of the ring signifies. Here they are:

Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So the ring that is given is a sign of the love and fidelity of the one who gives it. The ring that you wear, that was placed on your finger by your spouse on your wedding day, does not represent your commitment to your marriage, your love for your spouse, your faithfulness to this relationship and to the vocation God has called you into, etc. It represents the commitment, love and faithfulness of your spouse to you.

The ring is not there, first of all, as a sign of your continuing commitment to this person (although of course it can come to mean that as well). It’s an ongoing reminder of the promise that the other person has made to you. It’s a sign of the covenant that your spouse has made with you, and that God has sealed, and that you have freely embraced and entered into. The same covenant that you have also made with your spouse.

I know this is obvious – I’m ashamed to say that I’d just never thought of it before. It changes things. I’m sure I’ve given lots of wedding sermons about looking down at the ring on your finger and choosing to live your marriage and love your spouse. It’s all true, in one sense. But the symbolism of the ring is not, ultimately, about your own efforts or decisions or commitments, it’s a reminder of the promise that another has made to you, and of the promise that God has made to you both. I know that life, and marriage, are not always tidy or easy, but I think there is a truth worth pondering here.

Do contradict me, and write in the comments what your wedding ring has meant to you over the years!

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I was sad to hear that Tony Scott has died, and even sadder to discover that he seems to have taken his own life by jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles. May he rest in peace.

He was one of my favourite directors, and in my mind a much better film maker than his brother Ridley. Recent highlights include Unstoppable and Deja Vu; there are classic thrillers like Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide; and of course it all started in 1986 with top Gun. I’ve never seen True Romance – it was the Tarantino connection that put me off, and I think it would be too violent for my taste.

Why do I like him as a director? Because he knew, like Hitchcock and David Mamet, that film is film; that the point is to take you somewhere within the film. A good plot does not need to have a profound external meaning, but it does need to keep you moving forward within the parameters of the set-up, with your heart and mind and senses fully engaged and desperate to know where it is all going.

He’s dismissed for making films that are merely entertaining, and criticised for being at heart just an ad man – as if his skill lies in creating flashy images and cutting between them quicker than anyone else. Yes, he created some of the flashiest images on screen – what wonderful cinematographers he had, together with his penchant for hyper-saturated colours. But it’s the nature of the cut that counts, not the speed. And he was a master.

He could create incredible tension, and beauty, by cutting from one shot to the next, and thus allowing the viewer’s heart and mind to travel an infinite distance that could never be conveyed with a panning shot. This is film as film. It’s Eisenstein, it’s Hitchcock. It’s all in David Mamet’s seminal book On Directing Film (which is more easily available in this collection).

He also knew that every element of plot had to fit together into a satisfying whole at the final denouement; and that we don’t care how ridiculous it is as long as it makes sense in its own terms. How few scriptwriters and directors seem to know this! The obituary in Tuesday’s Telegraph gets it completely wrong when it says he was all external sheen without a grasp of narrative.

Not everyone is into Sci-Fi, but if you want to get a taste of pure Tony Scott then get hold of the DVD of Deja Vu.

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Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton was on Desert Island Discs recently. You can listen here.

She was born with a degenerative condition and her parents were told she would not survive infancy. Now in her mid-fifties and a cross-bench peer, she’s spent her adult life campaigning for equality for disabled people and was one of the leading voices behind the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

There were some fascinating insights about living with a serious disability, and what it means for her as a person, and for society.

She was asked about the loss of privacy that comes through needing the help of a carer for everyday life. She said (I’m paraphrasing, and writing from memory) that privacy is not just about physical space, but much more about preserving your interior privacy – keeping that inner space you need for yourself, one that can never be taken from you, whatever is happening on the outside.

And then this got her speaking more generally about the experience of having a number of people over many years help her and care for her. It gives you an insight, she said, into what people are really like, much more than if you were on ‘equal’ terms with them in your physical abilities. You are ‘being cared for’, and someone is coming into your private space, but being in a position of ‘carer’ exposes not just you to them but also them to you in a way that wouldn’t normally happen in everyday society. You see the reality of the person they are through the way they treat you.

I’m reading into her comments a little more than she actually said, but I think it is justified. She was saying, in effect, that your lack of autonomy, which might seem to isolate you and put you at a distance from the autonomous development of relationships that usually takes place, in fact allows a degree of communion between persons, of vulnerability, insight and even intimacy, that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You see more and share more because of the relationship of need and dependence. Autonomy isn’t the only way in which people can freely share their lives with each other and be brought into a profound relationship. Autonomy, in other words, doesn’t define you as a person.

Pope John Paul II touched on these questions in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[There is a] mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is “not to be used”? The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others.

We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection [...].

At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. [Para 19]

And in the following paragraph [20] he continues:

This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.

Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual.

In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

I’m not saying that Baroness Campbell would agree with all this – I’m just following my own train of thought from Desert Island Discs to Pope John Paul II.

Another lovely story that came across later in the programme was this: She said that as a child with a severe disability, nevertheless her parents loved her with an unconditional love, and never tired of telling her that she was beautiful; and this knowledge of their love and of her beauty has sustained her throughout her life and given her the courage and confidence to overcome the huge difficulties she has faced. I like the two sides of this, equally important but sometimes separated from each other: being loved by another – a subjective reality; and being beautiful – an objective or a transcendent reality. Your dignity, your worth, your goodness, your beauty: in the eyes of another (because they happen to be there), and in the eyes of God (because he made you to be who you are). For the common good, and for the rights of each individual, society needs both the subjective and the objective affirmations of human worth.

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I grew up in Harpenden, a small town off the M1 about half an hour north of London, with St Albans just a few miles to the south, and Luton to the north. I was back there at the weekend and took a walk along the River Lea, where I used to play as a kid. It was a place for swimming, fighting, fishing, general splashing around, and finding hidden treasure. Now and then it was a place of danger and nasty accidents – usually caused by the broken bottles on the river bed, or some unseen stretch of barbed wire.

The River Lea in Harpenden

Harpenden is only a few miles from the source in Leagrave, on the edge of Luton, so the river is only about 12 feet wide – not much more than a stream. But the walk got me thinking about its huge historical significance. I was oblivious to this as a child.

In the late ninth century the River Lea formed one part of the boundary between the Danelaw, the eastern area occupied by the Vikings, and Saxon England to the west. West of the Lea was the territory that King Alfred managed to hold, and to the east the Vikings had the run of the place. This was all codified in a treaty between Alfred and Gurthrum. So Harpenden (or the few hamlets in the area in the late ninth century) was right at the ‘national’ boundary between England and Scandinavia, between Saxon and Viking.

The Lea, with its course much altered over the centuries, runs through the Olympic Park at Stratford, and into the Thames near the Millennium Dome. You could never guess at its historical significance today, but there are a few remaining boundaries that betray its larger meaning. Part of the border between Essex and Hertfordshire, for example, follows the river’s course. And it’s interesting that when they were cutting off the Diocese of Brentwood from Westminster, the dividing line through east London is marked by the River Lea. So the ecclesiastical boundaries of the twentieth century reflect over a thousand years of territorial dispute, compromise, and eventual agreement.

Just for the record, I was born on the right side of the River Lea (Alfred’s/Westminster’s) at Tottenham Court Road, and lived on the Saxon side of the small valley that cuts through the eastern edge of Harpenden!

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There are some moments of Olympic glory that could never be caught on camera. Not because they are too quick (the photo-finish shots from the velodrome were at 1/1000th of a second intervals), or too peripheral (nothing seemed to be outside the purview of the journalists and their camera teams), but because they take place in the innermost sanctuary of a competitor’s conscience.

There was a defining moment for Timo Boll in the table tennis. His opponent hit the ball; it seemed to everyone to have missed the table on Boll’s side; the umpire was about the give the point to Boll; but Boll heard the faintest sound as it narrowly struck the side of the table, or saw the slightest movement as it glanced away, and relinquished the point. He went on to lose the match.

What a moment of high drama, what a moment of true Olympic glory: that someone would choose truth over victory, integrity over success. Something so apparently small; unnoticed and perhaps unnoticeable to anyone but Boll himself.

Perhaps I am romanticising. Perhaps he was afraid that the slow motion replays would reveal the truth and expose his complicit silence; perhaps he was more afraid of being caught than losing.

The reality is that these split seconds decisions, when there is hardly any time to deliberate, usually reflect the character of the person – formed over a lifetime of more considered decisions – rather than the impulse of the moment. Nevertheless, he made the decision, and he made the right one – and in my mind his glory is far greater than if he had gone on to win the gold. There must be many other moments like this, completely hidden from view.

This was reported in the Times on Saturday – I’ve lost the paper now so I can’t credit the author. Nor can I find the match on YouTube, so here is an older match against Jun Mizutani just to show you that he is a serious table tennis player as well as a man of honour!

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Yes, Usain Bolt is pretty fast (the fastest man on earth). Yes, he likes the big events. Yes, his nonchalance and keeping cool are not just cunning fronts to phase the other runners – they are real. But why has he run so well at these Olympics?

Listen to what he actually said in his BBC interview straight after he had won the 100m final: He is not a good starter. He’d been worrying about this, trying to improve his start, trying to react quicker and get out of the blocks ahead of his rivals. And all this worry was tensing him up and making him run worse. Until his coach said to him: Forget about the start. You’ll beat them when you get into your stride. For you, it is the second half of the race that matters. And when he realised that, and let go of the desire to put everything right, he was fine. More than fine: he was 9.63 seconds.

And this is what he said in the post-win euphoria: I won because I stopped worrying about my start.

This is a wonderful example of ‘positive psychology’. Instead of looking at psychological dysfunction and trying to fix it, positive psychology looks at a person’s strengths, virtues and talents. It doesn’t ignore the very real difficulties that someone may have, but the core conviction is that you help someone to flourish and find happiness by focussing on their strengths rather than by trying to correct or compensate for their weaknesses.

Sometimes, you don’t need to straighten everything out, you just need to go with what’s positive – notice it, affirm it, use it, strengthen it. This is what Usain Bolt learnt from his coach.

Most of us are right or left handed. We don’t worry about that most of the time; we don’t waste energy trying to build up our skill set in our weaker hand. We simply learn to live with the strengths that come from our stronger hand. This can be true for skills, virtues, personality traits, spiritual gifts, etc.

If you are interested in all this, see the Authentic Happiness website run by Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And you can take one of the questionnaires here, to see what are your instinctive strengths of character and how they might serve you better.

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