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Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Loneliness, Part 2: reflection. See post at Jericho Tree.

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Loneliness, Part 1: statistics. See the post at Jericho Tree.

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When you don’t know how to help your child or where to turn: See this post about Mothers Prayers on Jericho Tree

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What is the single most important predictor of a group’s effectiveness? See this post at Jericho Tree.

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A religious sister reflects on the niqab, wearing the veil as a Catholic woman, and living in the gaze of others: read the article here at Jericho Tree.

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brentwood cathedral

The parish of Brentwood Cathedral has just posted some ideas for parents who are bringing their babies, toddlers and children to Mass each Sunday.

Some of these ideas were tested here on Bridges and Tangents a couple of months ago, which generated a great discussion in the comments section. You can see the final results at the Jericho Tree site.

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JT_TREE_TIGHTSQUARE_BLUE

I’ve been involved in a new Catholic website called Jericho Tree.

You can visit the site here. Do subscribe to the email list in the right-hand side-bar.

You can visit the Facebook page here. Please do publicise the site by liking the page.

And you can follow the Twitter feed here @jerichotree.

If you’ve got any feedback it’s most helpful to leave it on the site itself - on the feedback page here.

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Here is the blurb from the ABOUT page.

Jericho Tree is a magazine-style website bringing together articles and videos about faith, culture, lifestyle and news – from a Catholic perspective.

The title ‘Jericho Tree’ refers to the meeting between Zacchaeus and Jesus in Chapter 19 of the Gospel of St Luke. As Jesus enters Jericho, Zacchaeus longs to see him, but he is too short, and the crowds are too big. So he climbs a tree in order to get a better view.

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

“All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’”

The idea is to create a forum for great Catholic writing, mainly from a UK perspective, but with some international contributors as well; and to link to other articles and videos that take a fresh look at the world from a Catholic perspective. Quiet a few people have promised to write, and a few have already started. We’ll see how it develops over the next few months!

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I was at a funeral in Poplar last week, near the London Docklands. It’s the first time I have visited the Catholic church there, or wandered round the area.

This was the old ‘Chinatown’, before the Chinese moved to Soho in the 1950s and 1960s. I had no idea that the memory of the Chinese presence endures in the street names:

sign1 by SW

sign2 by SW

sign3 by SW

One friend who grew up here remembered a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by ‘Harry’. Another friend who grew up round the corner in Limehouse told me years ago about the wok maker who lived on his street when he was a child.

There are lots of ‘local history’ and ‘ethnic history’ type books about the Chinese experience in London, I just haven’t gone into them very deeply. There is, amazingly, a famous protestant pastor who ministered to the Chinese in the post-war period. His name? Pastor Stephen Wang! I’m not joking; I have a book about him – available here on Amazon.

There are personal connections for me in all this. My Chinese great-grandfather first came to the UK at the very end of the nineteenth century, and his route was through the Liverpool docks. But when his son, my father’s father, emigrated with his Chinese wife from Canton in the early 1930s, they arrived at the docks in London, went straight to Chinatown (i.e. Limehouse/Poplar) to stock up on Chinese supplies, and then travelled to Sheffield to set up the Chinese laundry that kept them in business for many years. Maybe they stayed with friends on Pekin Street or Canton Street or Nankin Street…

Whenever I meet an elderly person from Sheffield I ask them if they knew the Chinese laundry on Ecclesall Road in Sheffield, and it’s amazing how many remember having their shirts ironed or collars starched by my grandparents all those years ago.

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It’s a common question: what do you do at Mass when your children are unsettled – babies crying, toddlers toddling off in random directions, younger children talking or fighting or banging toy tanks and fire engines, older children perhaps reluctant to be there. I collated a few suggestions in the Ten Ten Parents Booklet last year.

A priest friend of mine, who works in a large parish just outside London, has been mulling over these things. After discussions with parents, parishioners, clergy and the parish team, they have put together this leaflet to distribute to parents. It’s always a difficult one this. How do you encourage people, and be clear about some of the expectations and boundaries within the Liturgy, without creating a list of pharisaical rules or being unsympathetic to the huge struggles of parents and families.

This seems like an honourable try to me. What do you think? Any comments or suggestions in the comments box please, and then you can help my friend develop this as it goes along.

For parents at Mass with babies, toddlers or children

The presence of so many parents at Mass with their babies and children is a real blessing for our parish. It shows how vibrant, joyful and alive our community is. Seeing so many families really warms my heart and gives me great hope for the future. So, a huge “thank you” to all parents with children who faithfully come to Mass. You are, indeed, the first and best teachers of your children in the ways of faith. You are doing a great job.

Sometimes parents ask me about what is the best thing to do if their baby or child is behaving in a way that is distracting to others. Having asked the advice of parents, priests and other parishioners, here are some ideas and practical tips that might help and support you:

1. Talk to your children about the parish church. This is a special place because Jesus is there. When we come into God’s house, this is “quiet time” where we speak to Jesus, our friend, in our hearts, as well, as with our prayers and songs.

2. Weekly Mass attendance is important. When attendance is irregular, broken or happens rarely, then it is more difficult for our children to develop the ways of behaving that are appropriate at Mass.

3. When you come into the church, why not bless your child with holy water or, if they are old enough, allow them do it themselves and learn to make the sign of the Cross? These simple rituals will help your child to appreciate that they are in God’s House.

4. Try to get to Mass a little ahead of time, so that you can settle your child for this “quiet time” with Jesus. If parents are rushing into the church at the last moment or arriving late, this is almost impossible to do. It can also be distracting for other parishioners who are trying to prepare themselves spiritually for Mass.

If we are flustered and distracted, our children will pick up on this. If we all work to create a prayerful and composed atmosphere in the church, this will help our children.

A little time before Mass spent preparing your child for the “quiet, special time” with Jesus will help them to understand that the church is a different place to their homes, the park or the school playground. It will help them to distinguish between ways of behaving that are appropriate to different places and circumstances.

Maybe you could kneel down together and say a simple prayer? You might read or get your child to read the words of the opening hymn and reflect on it? Or just sit, bow your heads and offer thirty seconds of quiet time to God?

5. At the church we have a family room where parents can take their children if they are very unsettled. Please make good use of it.

6. We all need to be sensible about noise at Mass. After all, this is public worship with children. But, we all need to be aware of where we are, the sacred things we are taking part in and to have a real respect for those around us. So, don’t rush to take your child out if there is some very “light” noise or murmuring, but if a baby is crying or a child’s behaviour is disruptive, take them to the family room, go into the lobby or, weather permitting, have a wander outside the church.

7. Some parents find sitting between their children helpful, especially if their children talk or tease each other.

8. Walking toddlers around the church during Mass can be distracting for the priest and the congregation. If your toddler is restless then take them for a wander outside the main body of the church.

9. One of the toilets has a changing table for babies if parents need to change nappies. Older children should be encouraged to go to the toilet before they come to Mass. Children going back and forth to the toilet disrupts a prayerful atmosphere.

10. If your child needs distracting give them a “soft” toy or for older children, colouring or religious books. Bunches of keys or “hard” toys made of plastic or metal being shaken, squeaked or banged on the floor can become very distracting. Why not put together a “Jesus” bag or rucksack that has a couple of things in them and becomes part of the weekly preparation for going to Mass?

11. It is perfectly acceptable to bottle feed infants or to give your child a drink of water, but the use of food snacks should be kept to a minimum.

12. Parents must consume the Body of Christ when they receive Holy Communion and NOT give it to their children to play with or eat.

13. After Mass finishes, why not visit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with your child? If they are old enough, teach them to genuflect before the tabernacle and to light a candle. Then, give them a few moments in “quiet time” thanking Jesus for his friendship and love. These rituals will help your child to appreciate that the Mass is where we meet Jesus in a very special way.

14. After Mass, make sure you bring your children to high-five or say “hello” to the priest or deacon.

15. Coffee and juice are available after the “Family” Mass – this is a good way for parents to get to know each other and for children to make new friendships.

16. Can we strike a balance between an appropriate firmness so that our children learn proper behaviour at Mass and also a certain “light-heartedness”? If our children are to love their Catholic Faith, I think we can.

All families and children are welcome here in the parish church. I thank every one of them for being part of the life of our marvellous parish community.

May God richly bless and protect you and your children.

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There have been a few articles recently about the advantages of the one-child family and growing up sibling-free.

Where the Wild Things Are graffiti in Streatham  by linniekin

Colin Brazier, Sky News presenter and father of six, puts the other side. The title of his piece is ‘Why having big families is good for you (and cheaper)‘. Here are some highlights.

Some of the most startling literature comes from medical research. It has long been known that siblings – by sharing germs at a young age and mutually priming immune systems – provide some protection against atopic conditions such as hay fever and eczema. But the latest breakthroughs suggest growing up with a brother or sister can also guard against food allergies, multiple sclerosis and some cancers. For reasons that have yet to be fully fathomed, these benefits do not apply to children simply by dint of spending time sharing bugs with other youngsters – as they would, for instance, in day care.

The other “epidemics” of modern childhood, obesity and depression, are also potentially reduced by exposure to siblings. A clutch of major studies from all over the world shows that the more siblings a child has, the thinner they will be. Put simply, siblings help children burn off fat. One American study honed its analysis down to an amazingly precise deduction: with each extra brother or sister, a child will be, on average, 14 per cent less obese. Reductio ad absurdum? We can scoff at such a definitive conclusion, until we realise that no one in medical academia has suggested that having a sibling ever made anyone fatter.

None of this is rocket science. When we compare like with like, regardless of family background, children with siblings tend to enjoy better mental health. Obviously, again, this is to generalise massively. The world is full of jolly singletons. But dig into some of the big data sets out there and unignorable patterns emerge. On experiences on which nation states hold a big corpus of statistics, events such as divorce and death, for example, strong correlations exist.

Cause is not always correlation, but it stands to reason that when parents split up or die, a child will benefit from having a sibling to turn to. That solidarity runs throughout the lifespan. After all, a sibling is for life, not just for childhood.

Indeed, policymakers with an eye to areas beyond elderly care may need to wake up to the shifting sands of family composition. In the late 20th century, the received wisdom among sociologists was that it mattered not a jot to society at large whether more people were sticking to one child. Now that assumption is being questioned. Is the valuable role played by siblings in elderly care factored into the welfare debate? Will an economy with fewer creative middle children be as competitive? How easy will the state find waging war when more parents are reluctant to see their only child march to the front?

More broadly, the last decade has seen a major evolution in academic thinking about siblings. They have ousted parents as being the key driver behind personality development. And where, 30 years ago, academics such as Toni Falbo argued that to be born an only child was to have won the lottery of life, now research is running in the opposite direction.

A slew of reports by serious scholars, such as Prof Judy Dunn of King’s College London, have chipped away at the idea that family size is the product of a consequence-free decision. Researchers have shown that “siblinged” children will have stronger soft skills and keener emotional intelligence than single children. They will be better at gratification deferment (because they have learnt to wait their turn) and hit motor milestones such as walking and talking more rapidly than those without sibling stimulation.

Some of the most recent evidence even suggests that a child with a brother and/or sister will have more evolved language skills and do better at exams. This information is truly revolutionary. For decades, the assumption of academic ideas such as the Dilution Theory has been that less is more.

Have too many children and, as a parent, you will not be able to leverage your resources on to a solitary stellar-achieving child. Indeed, for parents who cannot stop themselves hovering above and over-scheduling their hurried offspring, a sibling for their one-and-only can be the antidote to pushy parenting.

I don’t think this is about a binary ‘right or wrong’, with the consequent stigmatising of one size of family over another. There are many different reasons why some families are larger and some smaller. But it’s good to be aware that some of the alarmist articles about the costs of raising children are extremely one-sided.

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After eight years working at the seminary, I’m on the move…

I saw my bishop recently (Archbishop Vincent Nichols), and he asked me to take on a new appointment at Newman House, the University Chaplaincy in central London. I will be very sad to leave Allen Hall – I’ve never been more settled; but I am delighted to be moving to Newman House and involved in student chaplaincy.

The front of the house on Gower Street

The front of the house on Gower Street

The official title is the Catholic Chaplaincy for the Universities and other Higher Education Institutions in the Diocese of Westminster. So there is the hands-on pastoral role of being a chaplain, as well as the role of coordinating the chaplaincy provision throughout the diocese. What an adventure…

There are still a few weeks to go at the seminary. Lots of trying to tie up loose ends, and preparing the handover. It’s wonderful that Fr Michael O’Boy has been appointed to take my place as the Dean of Studies.

I’ve copied below a short piece I wrote for the Chaplaincy newsletter if you are interested.

I am absolutely delighted to be moving to Newman House in September and taking over from Fr Peter as Senior Chaplain. I have had eight very happy years on the staff at Allen Hall seminary, and it will be hard to leave. But I’m thrilled at the thought of being at the University Chaplaincy, working with the team there, and getting to know the students and staff of the universities and colleges.

It is a strange kind of homecoming for me. My parents met when they were both students at University College Hospital, and I was born at the old UCH site on Gower Street! Not many people can say they are living and working on the same street where they were born…

I am a great believer in student chaplaincies. When I went to university (before seminary) I had only been a Catholic for six months, and the Catholic chaplaincy became a second home to me. I learnt so much about my faith, grew in my love for prayer and the liturgy, made some wonderful friends, and was really challenged to take this faith out into the world and help others to see its beauty and its relevance to their lives.

When I made a ‘secret’ visit recently, Fr Peter gave me a very warm welcome. It will be hard to take over from him: I know how much he has given to the Chaplaincy over these years, and how much he is loved. It simply wouldn’t be possible, as the phrase goes, for anyone to ‘step into his shoes’. It feels more like I am ‘moving into his slipstream’. I hope that all the energy and dynamism that has been part of the Chaplaincy over the last few years will carry me along in its wake.

Please pray for me over these next few weeks, as I finish my time at Allen Hall and prepare to move to Newman House. I will be praying for everyone involved in the life of the Chaplaincy, and for all those who are beginning their studies in the autumn. And I wish Fr Peter all the best for his new appointment – wherever it may be!

I look forward to meeting you all in September, if not before then.

Fr Stephen

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I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favourite books: True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, by playwright and director David Mamet.

mamet

At first glance, it’s a trenchant attack by an experienced and opinionated drama teacher on Stanislavsky and the whole theory of ‘Method Acting’. Method Actors try to get inside the mind and heart of the characters they are playing. The more they ‘become’ the character they are playing, and the more they identify with the experience of the fictional person they are trying to bring to life, then the more authentic – so the theory goes – their portrayal will be.

Mamet says this is just nonsense. The actor just needs to act. Their inner experience has nothing to do with the effectiveness of their acting. The good actor, as opposed to the ‘Great Method Actor’, simply plays the part, using all his or her skills and experience of the stage. The success comes through the strength of the writing, and the extent to which the actor can communicate the ‘practical’ intentions and concerns of the character: what they want, where they are going, what they are worrying about, why they are excited, etc.

It’s this dynamism that makes a character interesting. This is what makes drama dramatic. We are not moved by a character’s emotion (that’s a cheap response); we are moved by the dramatic situation that causes the emotion in the character. So the primary task of the actor is not to simulate the inner experience or emotion of the character, but to put his or her dramatic situation onstage in front of us. They are quite different tasks.

You can apply this to so many different situations, and not just to acting – which is why I find the book so inspiring. It’s about discovering a different kind of authenticity from that which is normally on offer in our culture. To be authentic is not to go inwards, to summon up great depths of emotion, to express ourselves without self-restraint: this is authenticity as ‘sincerity’. To be truly authentic is simply to act for something worthwhile, to live a life worth living. It’s more objective, more matter-of-fact.

There is still a kind of transparency (which has a great currency in our culture), but this is because when you see what someone is striving for, it helps you to understand who they truly are. You don’t always need to go inward; you don’t need to get them on Oprah.

This is basically Aristotle. It’s the telos (the end, the purpose) that defines a person’s actions; and it’s the telos that defines the person. I don’t discover who you are by having you pour out your heart to me (although that might, in some situations, be an important moment in our relationship!); I discover who you are by seeing how you live and what you care about and who you love and what you would die for.

It’s the action, the life, that makes you the person you are, and makes you interesting or not so interesting. The inner commentary that you may offer me, or the emotions that you may experience, may help me to understand you a little bit better, but they won’t actually show me who you are. I need to discover that by the way you act. This is what Manet and Aristotle know.

Here are a few of my favourite quotations from the book:

Nothing in the world is less interesting that an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions. The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness…

The good play does not need the support of the actor, in effect, narrating its psychological undertones, and the bad play will not benefit from it…

In ‘real life’ the mother begging for her child’s life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance – these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in ‘real life’ to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch…

Great drama, onstage or off, is not the performance of deeds with great emotion, but the performance of great deeds with no emotion whatever…

The simple performance of the great deed, onstage or off, is called ‘heroism’…

Preoccupation with effect is preoccupation with the self, and not only is it joyless, it’s a waste of time… Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make out intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performance becomes pure and clear…

There is much, much more to this simple book – 127 pages, large print. Do take a peak.

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It was good to be at the HTB Leadership Conference on Monday and Tuesday. They filled the Albert Hall, and still managed to sell a few hundred extra tickets for the overflow venue at Holy Trinity Brompton Road.

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There were some very powerful talks and interviews; an incredible array of seminar topics; lots of prayer and discussion and networking; and some fantastic music from the Worship Central team. And there was, interestingly, a very strong Catholic presence: Cardinal Schönborn, for example, was one of the keynote speakers; Christopher West led a series of workshops over two whole afternoons about the Theology of the Body; and the Carmelite Church in Kensington was packed for the celebration of Holy Mass (followed by breakfast for all present), as part of the conference programme, on the Tuesday morning.

I won’t even attempt to summarise the content of the talks. The phrase that struck me most was from Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the States. It was a throwaway line in the middle of a very practical talk about creating a vision within your core team. Here is the line: “You know, we sometimes forget this: that it’s natural for churches to grow!” In other words, if a Christian community simply lives its faith to the full; if Christians simply become the disciples they are called to be; if we simply believe and pray and love and hope and serve as we are meant to: then of course our churches will grow. What should baffle us is not why they sometimes do, but why they usually don’t. As St Catherine of Sienna said: ‘If you become who you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire’.

There was an intensity about the conference, a passion for souls, a Christian fervour, that you don’t often experience on an average Sunday morning. I was wondering to myself if this intensity was something attractive only to those ‘professional’ Christians (like myself) who sign up for conferences like this, and whether it might alienate ordinary Christians. But the conference started on Monday, 13 May, and I started to connect it with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

In the morning, I had celebrated Mass in the local parish in Chelsea and given a short sermon. I spoke about Our Lady of Fatima’s passion for souls, the sense of urgency which she communicated to the three shepherd children, the seriousness of her message, and the unconditional commitment to the gospel message of salvation that she expected from the children and from every Christian. Then I walked up the road to the HTB Leadership Conference. When you see things from the perspective of the call to conversion and the invitation to salvation, there is not a great distance from Fatima to Holy Trinity Brompton.

[For information about Fatima, see here. If you want to book for the leadership conference next year, see here]

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The best film of the year? Go and see The Place Beyond the Pines. I know, it’s not even May, and this may be a bit premature. But it’s certainly the best film of my last twelve months, and I’d put good money on it remaining in the top slot until 31 December.

I absolutely cannot tell you any plot, and please don’t read any reviews or watch any trailers, because there were some beautiful moments of revelation that would have been destroyed if I had known what was coming. All I’ll say is this: it’s perhaps the most profound study of fatherhood I’ve ever seen on film. And if there is a topic that needs real consideration in our culture today it is this.

This isn’t meant to be a reflective post, just an advert! If you want to see a serious, thought-provoking, beautiful and thrilling piece of film-making, go and see this before it disappears onto the small screen.

I managed to find a YouTube clip that is not a trailer. Take a look at this bravura extended-take opening scene. The film is much more than this; but what a way to start!

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When I was reading about Want-ology last week, I came across this wonderful phrase: the outsourcing of the self. It says so much, without needing to be explained; it gives enormous satisfaction by filling a definite lexicological gap.

outsourced self

This is how Rhys Blakely got onto the subject:

Look no further than the growing list of intimate tasks, or ‘hyper-personal services’, that can be outsourced to paid strangers in LA.

There are nameologists to name children, who are then potty trained by hired baby-whisperers; there are ‘elderly-care managers’ and professional graveside-visitors; there are love coaches and ‘decluttering consultants’, and I once met a banker who hired somebody to read his children bedtime stories down the phone.

So is it really surprising to learn that you can now pay someone to tell you what you want?

[Times2, p4, March 14, 2013]

It’s hard to believe some of this Californian excess, but there are plenty of more mainstream examples.

I don’t know if she actually coined the phrase, but Arlie Russell Hochschild is the author of The Outsourced Self. This is from a review by Judith Shuleviz.

In “The Outsourced Self,” Hochschild talks to love coaches, wedding planners, surrogate mothers, nannies, household consultants and elder-care managers, but also, and with deep empathy, their clients. A majority of these people are middle-aged or near middle age; the main thing is, they’re not young, which means they are not yet used to a virtualized and monetized social existence and can still express doubts about it. Most are women, who have long been the main providers of care, love and charity.

Hochschild’s consumers buy hyperpersonal services because they lack the family support or social capital or sheer time to meet potential mates, put on weddings, whip up children’s birthday parties, build children’s school projects, or care for deteriorating parents.

Or these folks think they just couldn’t perform such tasks as well as the pros. The providers sell their services because the service economy is where the money is, or because they take pleasure in helping others. Everybody worries about preserving the human element in the commercial encounter. Very few succeed.

Shuleviz gives this example:

Evan Katz is a love coach who teaches would-be online daters “How to Write a Profile That Attracts People You Want to Meet.” One of his clients is Grace (virtually all names have been changed), a divorced 49-year-old engineer who wants to search for love as methodically as she solves an engineering problem. Katz tells her “to show the real you through real stories.” When Grace comes up with a story about learning humility by scrubbing toilets at a Zen monastery, he reels her back in: “That might be a little too out there.”

On a mass medium like the Internet, the best “real you” is average, not quirky: “Everyone needs to aim for the middle so they can widen their market,” Katz says. He encourages daters to rate themselves from 1 to 10, and not to aim higher than their own rating.

On the other hand, he worries that daters will objectify themselves and others so zealously they’ll equate dating and shopping: “They want to quickly comb through the racks and snap their fingers, next . . . next . . . next. . . . You can be too efficient, too focused on your list of desired characteristics, so intent on getting the best deal that you pass over the right one.” Luckily, Grace escapes that trap when she agrees to go out with a tattooed, bald musician who doesn’t fit the criteria on her list, and falls in love.

We are outsourcing the self all the time. It’s part of what makes us human, that our personal lives are never completely separated from the culture, and that there is often a transactional element to this.

We share tasks; we give and take; we are responsible for each other in different ways. The line between what is personal, familial, cultural, technological, and commercial is always being re-negotiated. That doesn’t mean we can’t make mistakes or cross a line into a kind of existence that is almost depersonalised. This is the real question that Hochschild is raising.

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I’m half-way through a lovely book by Leo Maasburg called Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait.

maas

It’s an easy read, being simply a collection of anecdotes and stories. Here is the blurb:

Mother Teresa’s life sounds like a legend. The Albanian girl who entered an Irish order to go to India as a missionary and became an “Angel of the Poor” for countless people. She was greatly revered by Christians as well as Muslims, Hindus and unbelievers, as she brought the message of Christian love for one’s neighbor from the slums of Calcutta to the whole world.

Fr. Leo Maasburg was there as her close companion for many years, traveling with her throughout the world and was witness to countless miracles and incredible little-known occurrences. In this personal portrait of the beloved nun, he presents fifty amazing stories about her that most people have never heard, wonderful and delightful stories about miracles, small and great, that he was privileged to experience at Mother Teresa’s side. Stories of how, without a penny to her name, she started an orphanage in Spain, and at the same time saved a declining railroad company from ruin, and so many more.

They all tell of her limitless trust in God’s love, of the way the power of faith can move mountains, and of hope that can never die. These stories reveal a humorous, gifted, wise and arresting woman who has a message of real hope for our time. It’s the life story of one of the most important women of the 20th century as it s never been told before. Illustrated with photos.

This story really struck me, about the generosity of a newly married couple, told by Mother Teresa herself:

I never forget, some time ago, two young people came to our house and gave me lots of money. And I asked them, “Where did you get so much money?” And they said, “Two days ago we got married. Before marriage, we decided we will not buy wedding clothes. We will not have a wedding feast. We will give you that money.”

And I know in our country, in a Hindu family, what that means, not to have wedding clothes, not to have a wedding feast. So again I asked, “But why? Why did you do like that?” And they said, “We loved each other so much that we wanted to share the joy of loving with the people you serve.”

How do we experience the joy of loving? How do we experience that? By giving until it hurts. [p.68]

I’ve blogged before about the Wedding-Industrial Complex and the pressures on engaged couples to create the perfect wedding. This is such an impressive story because it is not about trying to fight the system for its own sake, but about being motivated by love to see things in a different perspective, and discover possibilities others would never have dreamed of. What a great way to start your marriage! (I hope/trust that the parents approved of the decision!)

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times square by joshua davis photography

From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

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priests227 by Austin Diocese

Celibacy is in the air again. Or rather, Cardinal O’Brien’s recent comments have stirred up a debate about the obligation of celibacy for Catholic priests in the Western Church.

I thought I’d copy here a personal reflection on celibacy, and then some historical notes. The personal reflection is from something I wrote for the BBC News website three years ago; and the historical sections are copied from a recent post by Fr Tim Finigan.

This is the short piece I wrote for the BBC:

On 13 July 1997 I made a lifelong commitment to celibacy. In a chapel overlooking Lake Albano on the outskirts of Rome I promised to remain unmarried ‘for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind’.

I had a real sense of peace that day, but a few months earlier I had been in turmoil. I knew all the theory: Catholic priests were following the example of Christ; celibacy gave you a freedom to serve others, etc. But it hadn’t become real for me.

I was wrestling with all this one afternoon that spring. I realised that I had been seeing celibacy in negative terms: ‘No’ to marriage, ‘No’ to sex, ‘No’ to children – when in reality it was a profound ‘Yes’. It was a way of putting Christ at the centre of your life, of giving your whole heart to those you would serve as a priest. It was a way of loving others with a generosity that wouldn’t be possible if you were a husband and father. Celibacy wasn’t a negation or a denial – it was a gift of love, a giving of oneself, just as much as marriage could be.

My experience over the years has confirmed this. Yes, there are practical aspects to celibacy. You’ve got more time for other people, and more time for prayer. You can get up at three in the morning to visit someone in hospital without worrying about how this will affect your marriage. You can move to a bleak estate in a rough part of town without thinking about how this will impact on your children’s schooling.

But celibacy is something much deeper as well. There is a place in your heart, in your very being, that you have given to Christ and to the people you meet as a priest. You are not just serving them, you are loving them as if they were the very centre of your life – which they are. I think Catholics sense this. They know that you are there for them with an undivided heart, and it gives your relationship with them a particular quality.

It’s true that you can’t speak from experience about every aspect of human life. But you gain an awful lot of understanding from sharing in people’s lives over the years. Husbands and wives will confide in a sympathetic priest. You end up drawing on this experience as you preach and counsel people. Besides, people want a priest because he will show them the love of Christ, and not because he has lived through all ups and downs that they live through.

There are struggles. Times of loneliness; sexual desires; dreams about what marriage and fatherhood would be like. I don’t think most of this is about celibacy – it’s about being human. The husbands I know struggle with the same things, only they dream about what it would be like to have married someone else! What matters is trying to be faithful, instead of pretending that another way of life would be easy.

You need balance in your life, you can’t be giving all the time – this was emphasised in our training. You need affection and human intimacy. I’ve got some wonderful friends. I get home to see my family every couple of weeks. I escape to the cinema now and then. And I pray. Not to fill the gaps, because some of them can never be filled, but because the love of Christ is something very real and very consoling.

I’ve been incredibly happy as a priest over these twelve years. I don’t think about celibacy a lot now – it’s just part of my life. But I’m aware that it gives me a freedom of heart that is a unique gift. It helps me stay close to Christ, and draws me closer to the people I meet each day.

And these historical comments are taken from Fr Tim Finigan’s post, “Some notes on clerical celibacy“:

In the synoptic gospels we hear of how Our Lord cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from fever. In the discussion of clerical celibacy, this text is routinely brought out as a knock-down argument. The apostles were married so why can’t priests marry? Oddly, though, we never hear anything of St Peter’s wife, or indeed of any of the wives of the other apostles.

“Then Peter said: Behold, we have left all things, and have followed thee. Who said to them: Amen, I say to you, there is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting. (Lk 18.28-30)”

This suggests the possibility that St Peter had in fact left his family to follow the Lord. Such a course of action would be unacceptable in our time, but in the culture of Palestine in the time of Our Lord, the extended family would mean that it was possible.

Then we come to St Paul’s injunction in 1 Timothy 3.2 that the Bishop should be the husband of only one wife. It would be improbable to suggest that St Paul was dealing with a problem of polygamy. Much more likely he was saying that the Bishop should not be someone who had married a second wife after his first wife had died.

These indications from scripture are tantalising but need further illumination. Fortunately, there have been a number of studies that have cast light on the historical practice of the Church, arguing that the discipline of clerical celibacy is of apostolic origin.

Christian Cochini presented the historic debate between Bickell and Funk over certain key texts from the Council of Nicea, the Council of Elvira and others. He also exhaustively examined all of the cases from the first seven centuries of the Church’s history which were relevant to the issue of clerical marriage. His work supported the thesis that there was an apostolic rule of continence for those clerics who were married and that the legislation of the Church against the clerical use of marriage is witness to this ancient tradition.

Roman Cholij examined in particular the Council in Trullo of 691, concluding that the Council’s permission for the clerical use of marriage was an innovation, giving rise to the legislative anomaly in the East (and occasionally in the West) whereby married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry. This law, which is still a part of modern codes of canon law, makes little sense apart from the historic rule of continence…

Cardinal Stickler’s brief account is a most useful summary of the case for clerical celibacy. He notes that there have been a number of important recent studies devoted to the history of celibacy in both the East and the West, and that these studies have either not yet penetrated the general consciousness or they have been hushed up if they were capable of influencing that consciousness in undesirable ways.

This unfortunately remains the case as articles continue to appear without finding it necessary even to address the research of these scholars.

The later imposition of a rule that clerics should be unmarried was a recognition of the growing impracticality, with the development of marriage, and the problems of inheritance, of ordaining men who had been previously married, even if there were a rule of continence. It obviously makes sense today when people would find it hard to understand a system in which men who are married would be expected to change and live a life of continence…

Throughout the history of the Church, the discipline of clerical continence or celibacy has been transgressed by some clerics. The Church has consistently fought to reform the life of clerics in the face of immorality which has been greater at some times than others. Today we live in a time when reform is needed again. We should remember that when St Charles Borrommeo went to Milan, the vast majority of his priests were living in concubinage – and he reformed his diocese. The Council of Trent was largely successful in reforming the clergy.

At the present time, we should give thanks for the faithfulness and purity of most students and young priests. They have been formed at a time when appallingly bad example has been given by some of their senior brethren. They have reckoned the cost and turned into the storm with courage and resolution. Let us pray that they become the vanguard of the new reform of the clergy, following in the footsteps of their forbears in the counter-reformation and at many other times in the history of the holy Roman Church.

References

Cholij, R. Clerical Celibacy in East and West Gracewing. Herefordshire. 1989
Cochini, C. The apostolic origins of priestly celibacy Ignatius. San Francisco. 1990
Heid, S. Celibacy in the Early Church. Ignatius. San Francisco. 2000
Stickler, A. The case for clerical celibacy Ignatius. San Francisco. 1995

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This is a great prayer initiative, just in case you haven’t seen it yet. Adopt a Cardinal.

Adopt

You go to the site, give minimal details (name, email), and then they give you a randomly generated cardinal to pray for over the next few days and weeks (I presume he is randomly generated; I’ve no reason to think they are stacking it in some strange way!).

Why bother? This is just my quick interpretation of why I got so excited! (1) Prayer is good, full stop. (2) ‘Focussed’ prayer is good; when you name things and name people; when you speak like a child and ask the Lord to help a particular person with a particular need. (3) Making a concrete commitment to pray is good, even if it’s through a computer and a website. (4) It makes you realise you are praying with the whole Body of Christ, with Christians throughout the world. (5) It makes you feel personally involved in the whole process of the forthcoming election, more connected. (6) It opens you up to the life of the Church in a completely unexpected way: my cardinal is Polycarp Pengo, Archbishop of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I’ve never heard of him; never been there; yet I feel profoundly linked to him already. (7) It’s fun!

And no, I don’t think it’s about praying your cardinal into the Papacy; but praying that they are blessed by the Lord at this time, and truly open to the Holy Spirit in all that they do and decide.

This is the blurb from the website:

What about you? Do you feel the same way too?

  • Are you infinitely thankful to God for having given us such a wonderful, wise and benevolent pope in Benedict XVI.?
  • Do you sincerely hope that the Church will be granted a worthy successor: a rock of faith, a leader open to the Holy Spirit, a pope prayerful and holy?
  • Do you as an important part of the Body of Christ wish to contribute through the power of your prayers so that the Holy Spirit may guide, protect and enlighten our Cardinals when they determine the next successor of St. Peter?

You now have the opportunity to actively be part of this providential endeavour by having a Cardinal assigned to you, who you will support through your prayer and intercession during the coming weeks before and during the conclave and for three days following the election.

As I type there are 83,350 people signed up.

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Highclere Castle - Downton Abbey by griffinstar7

I’ve seen half an hour of Downton Abbey and absolutely nothing of Girls, so don’t think I am recommending either of them. But Anand Giridharadas has a very thoughtful piece about how they represent the shift from the socially-determined self of early 20th century Britain to the chaos of total self-determination experienced by the single women of contemporary New York.

On the surface, all they have in common is their Sunday airtime, at least in the United States. One television show is about English aristocrats, crisp, proper, well-dressed even in bed. The other is about four young women, often lost and very often unclothed, in a setting quite different from Yorkshire: Brooklyn, New York.

But “Downton Abbey” and”Girls”, both hugely popular, sometimes seem to be talking to each other. And it is a conversation of richer importance to our politics and culture than the nudity on one show and the costumes on the other might initially suggest.

On issue after issue, Americans continue to debate the limits of individual freedom — whether to abort a fetus or own a gun or sell stocks or buy drugs. And in different ways, the two television shows address the promise and limitations of the modern, Western emphasis on — even sacralization of — the individual.

“Downton” and “Girls” serve as bookends in an era defined by a growing cult of the self. “Downton” is about the flourishing of selfhood in a rigid, early-20th-century society of roles. “Girls” is about the chaos and exhaustion of selfhood in a fluid, early-21st-century society that says you can be anything but does not show you how.

This is Downton, where people still, just about, know who they are:

Set on a manor in which the hierarchy and fixedness of the country — indeed, of the Empire — are especially concentrated, “Downton” is a world where there is a way to do everything, from cleaning spoons to dressing for dinner. Status has been and still seems immovable, and servants must act at least as convinced of their inferiority as the masters are. Novelty and that great leveler, money, are reflexively suspected.

The drama is this world’s cracking under the pressure of new ideas like individualism. Thus the family driver, believing in equality and marrying for love, runs away with the family daughter; thus the men wear black tie instead of white to dinner one night; thus a new generation of servants is less servile, more willing to question.

Mary McNamara, a television critic at The Los Angeles Times, has described “Downton” as “the tale of an oppressive social and economic system that is finally being called into question.” The drama comes from watching our world slowly, inevitably defeat theirs: “the bondage of social bylaws and expectation, the fear of new technology, the desire to cling to old ways.”

This is Girls:

The daughters of the sexual revolution are depicted without much agency: Far from being conquerors, initiators, even equals, the girls of “Girls” are reactors, giving in to an ex who changes his mind, or a gay man wanting to try something, or a financier seeking a threesome that he manages to upgrade to traditionally twosome marriage.

What begins on “Downton” as a welcome questioning of age and status roles has snowballed by the “Girls” era into grave role confusion: parents who cannot teach their children how to live because they feel guilty about parenting, or want to be friends more than guides, or still dress like teenagers and call their offspring “prude.”

Nowhere is this overshooting truer than with the roles of the sexes. If “Downton” shows a world in which women are starting to claim their own sexuality, “Girls” portrays a sexual dystopia in which those women seem to have negotiated poorly: Men now reliably get what they want, while women must often content themselves with scraps, as when the character Hannah celebrates “almost” satiation in bed as the best she is likely to get…

“Girls” is about atoms that desire in vain to form molecules; about sex lives that breed more confusion than excitement; about people with the liberty to choose every day, on various dimensions, whom to be — and who grow very tired of the choosing.

And this is one of the Girls – Marnie:

I don’t know what the next year of my life is going to be like at all. I don’t know what the next week of my life is going to be like. I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.’

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[Yesterday's sermon!]

fear graffiti by By Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

What is the root problem for us as human beings? What is the root problem at the moment of the Fall itself, and in our daily personal struggles? Sin? Disobedience? Selfishness? Alienation? Pride? Possibly all of these.

But St John, in Chapter 4 of his First Letter, points to something else: Fear. It takes us right back to the Garden of Eden, just after the Fall, when the Lord God goes searching for Adam. And when he speaks to him, Adam replies: ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself’.

St John is very simple: ‘In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love.’ And he even sees the defeat of fear as a sort of test for whether we are ready to enter heaven or not. He writes, ‘Love will come to its perfection in us when we can face the Day of Judgment without fear’.

Is he being harsh and unrealistic? Is it fair to say that fear is a sign that we are not loving? At one level, this doesn’t ring true. Fear, as a human instinct, as a response to difficulties and dangers, seems to be natural and unavoidable; it’s part of a healthy physiology and psychology.

But many of our fears have other causes that are not so innocent, even though they may feel very normal and natural. We are afraid because we can’t get our own way; or because we are too attached to something and scared of losing it; or because we are worrying about what others think of us; or because we won’t trust God and hand over our future to him. These are unhealthy fears, and they stop us loving God and loving others.

Here is a tip: If you notice that you are afraid of something, big or small, don’t just ignore it. Stop. Reflect on it; pray about it; try to see what is at the root of the fear. Very often, this will be a moment of grace; it can lead you to see an area in your life where you are not free, not yet willing to trust God. It can reveal the extent to which you are still hiding, like Adam in the Garden – unable to trust others, to trust the Lord, to trust in his Providence. It can allow you to hear a very personal call from the Lord, to come out, to meet him. And that can lead you to a new step of faith and a new kind of freedom before the Lord.

Yes, perfect love casts out fear. It’s also true that fear, and facing the roots of our fears, can lead us to a deeper love.

(But don’t misunderstand this and get over-analytical! It doesn’t mean that every time we are afraid it is our fault or a sign of sin…)

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Stepping away from the politics and polemic surrounding marriage for a moment, how do you actually form children and young people – in an age-appropriate way – to understand the true meaning of love, friendship, sexuality and relationships?

A scene from the Play 'Nine Months' by Ten Ten Theatre

A scene from the Play ‘Nine Months’ by Ten Ten Theatre

 

I happened to see this article by Martin O’Brien that appeared in the Universe this month.

First of all, he recognises the challenges:

Educating children and young people with a sound understanding of Church teaching on relationships, sexual morality, love, marriage and family life remains one of the most challenging issues for any Catholic school.  Problems arise:  How we do we speak to children in their own language and culture but avoid reinforcing it?  Beyond the rules and regulations, what exactly is the Church teaching?  How am I supposed to teach it if my own life and values don’t live up to the ideal?

It was within this environment six years ago that Ten Ten Theatre – an award-winning Catholic theatre company – began devising, writing and producing a programme of Catholic Sex and Relationship Education which has now been established in hundreds of primary schools, secondary schools and parishes throughout the UK.

We take our inspiration from Blessed John Paul II’s teaching known as The Theology of the Body.  It has been our task over the last few years to identify some of the core values of the teaching and write accessible, contemporary stories to explore these ideas.  Karol Wojtyla himself was a keen actor and dramatist who believed passionately in the power of story and character to examine the human person.  At Ten Ten we aim to do the same, encouraging our children and young people to reflect on their own lives and experiences in order to understand more deeply their Call to Love.

Then he gives some examples from their work with teenagers:

The play “Chased” for the 13-14 age group follows the story of Scott and Carly who are so confused by the world they inhabit – pressure from friends, influence of the media, physical development – that they almost lose sight of their core dignity.  And yet through the story they begin to understand the deepest longings of the heart: to be honourable, to be cherished, to be loved and to love as Christ loves.

By taking the characters on this journey, and following it up with discussion, sharing, reflection and prayer, the young people understand what it means to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.

This begs the question, which O’Brien asks: What about primary school children?  How can we promote these values without corrupting children with sexual imagery and inappropriate information?

tt2

One example is “The Gift”, a lovely play for 7-9 year-olds.  It tells the story of twins Harry and Kate who learn about the preciousness of gifts: Kate’s treasured musical box, given to her by her Auntie who passed away, is accidentally smashed to pieces by Harry.  Harry doesn’t understand why Kate is so upset. “After all,” he says, “you can get another one from the pound shop… for a pound!” Through the story, both Harry and Kate (and the children watching) learn about the true value of gifts, what it means to make a gift of yourself and the importance of forgiveness.

These are precisely the same values we promote through the play “Chased” but at an age-appropriate level.   In the follow-up workshop to “The Gift”, the actors ask the children to think more deeply about the best gift they have ever been given, who gave it to them and why is it so special.  Sometimes the responses are material: Playstations and puppies are always very popular.  Other responses tell of something deeper: my life or my baby brother.

However, a few weeks ago at a school in Merseyside, one particular response really touched us.“What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?” we asked.   “My mum,” said the boy.   “And why is she so special?”   “Because she adopted me and without her I wouldn’t have been brought up happy,” said the boy.   The boy’s mother, in fact, also taught at the school.  Later that day, when she was told what her adopted son had said, she crumbled into tears.

I can understand why.  This woman has likely given her entire life as a gift to the boy, making a decision to love him, protect him and care for him with all of her heart.  Surely this is one of the greatest gifts that a person could choose to give.  And yet it is a gift that people throughout the world make moment after moment, day after day.  Now, as a result of the visit of Ten Ten, this particular mother knew that her seven-year-old adopted son valued and appreciated the great sacrifice she has made.

You can follow the Ten Ten blog here. For more information see their main website here.

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In the category of ‘What is X?’ searches for 2012, Google found that the most most popular search for the year was ‘What is love?’ And after love came: iCloud, 3G and Scientology. It’s fascinating what we seek when the door is closed and the computer switched on.

UK love by @doug88888

The Guardian, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the question “once and for all” (I love the emphatic nature of the quest!), gathered writers from the fields of science, psychotherapy, literature, religion and philosophy to give their definition of the much-pondered word ‘love’. This included the perspective of ‘The Nun’, Sr Catherine Wybourne, a Benedictine sister. You can read the responses here.

The most interesting is from Philippa Perry, ‘The Psychotherapist’, who says – just as Pope Benedict did in Deus Caritas Est – that we simply need more words to describe the stuff we usually put under the crude heading of the word ‘love’:

Unlike us, the ancients did not lump all the various emotions that we label “love” under the one word. They had several variations, including:

Philia which they saw as a deep but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members or as a deep bond forged by soldiers as they fought alongside each other in battle.

Ludus describes a more playful affection found in fooling around or flirting.

Pragma is the mature love that develops over a long period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practising goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding.

Agape is a more generalised love, it’s not about exclusivity but about love for all of humanity.

Philautia is self love, which isn’t as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered and as any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to care for others you need to be able to care about yourself.

Last, and probably least even though it causes the most trouble, eros is about sexual passion and desire. Unless it morphs into philia and/or pragma, eros will burn itself out.

Love is all of the above. But is it possibly unrealistic to expect to experience all six types with only one person. This is why family and community are important.

And it’s telling that in the Guardian headline to the article (‘What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all’), and in the Perry passage above, the starting assumption is that love is nothing more or less than an emotion. Sr Catherine is brave enough to use the phrase ‘theological virtue’, by which ‘we love God above all things and our neighbours as ourselves for his sake’; but there is not enough space to unpack this in the article, and to explore how love might be much more than simply an emotion.

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I had a great discussion on Sunday with a group of young adults about the morality/wisdom of telling your children that Father Christmas exists and delivers their presents each year.

 

Is it a form of lying? Is it, rather, a kind of mythology or fairy-tale that does no more harm than reading them bedtime stories, and actually does them good in helping them to develop their imagination and sense of wonder? Is it simply harmless? Or does it lead to a traumatic break in child-parent trust when they finally realise that the reality they have been told about by their parents is simply not true?

And – an extra question for Christian parents – if you are telling them stories about Santa Claus and Jesus at the same time, with the same awe-struck tone of voice, does it mean that the Jesus stories crumble as easily as the Santa ones a few years later?

I think your answer partly depends on your own experience. Some people never really believed in Santa anyway; there was some sixth sense that told them it was just a story, an act of make-believe. Some people really are traumatised when they discover The Big Lie that everyone around them has been conspiratorially involved in; and there is a questioning of what it means to trust their parents.

Others, much more low-key, remember a sense of disappointment and minor shock when they found out – they made a connection for themselves, or a big brother or sister told them, or they found the presents in their parents’ wardrobe the week before.

The other issue that came up was the fact that your decision as parents has an influence on others. Does it mean that your enlightened three-year old goes into the play group and tells all the other children it’s all a load of nonsense – to the consternation of the other parents?

Me? I can’t remember ever believing it – Santa Claus; reindeer; coming down the chimney; etc. I’m not saying I never did, I just can’t remember; and I can’t remember a moment of discovering it wasn’t true. My memories, perhaps quite late (5 or 6 years old?) are longing to fall asleep, knowing that mum and dad wouldn’t bring the presents in before then.

Comments please! Did it traumatise you? What do you tell your own children about Santa?

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By chance I was in my home town of Harpenden on Sunday, and after the 9.45 Mass many people from the Catholic church went down the road to the United Service of Remembrance round the War Memorial on Church Green.

It’s years since I have been present for this. I have memories of a few hundred people scattered around the green in the centre of town. But this Sunday there must have been a crowd of over two thousand people, spilling onto the surrounding roads. Perhaps it has been growing over the years; perhaps it was particularly large this year.

It was very moving, and very Christian! Prayers, hymns, readings. The names of the dead were read out. And it’s so easy to forget, but the whole town was gathered round a standing cross (see the old postcard above). I’ve wandered across the green a thousand times over the years (we moved to Harpenden when I was four), but I’ve hardly stopped to reflect that the focus of unity for the town was and still is the Cross of Jesus Christ. And when people want to reflect on death and life, remember their loved ones, or just come together as a community conscious of itself and its history – they gather round the Cross.

I’m not suggesting that everyone there had faith, or even that Christianity is on the increase in Hertfordshire (who knows?). But the huge crowds present this Sunday made me wonder if there is a deepening hunger for community and for a sense of connection with those in the past. Maybe we are more aware of our military than we used to be; maybe it’s the patriotism of the Jubilee or the communitarianism of the Olympics and the Paralympics; maybe we just long to feel more connected.

This was civic religion at its best: people still broadly connected with the nation’s Christian faith, even though there would be various shades of belief and unbelief; people finding that this faith gives them a unity with each other, and a way of making sense of their human struggles, that perhaps they wouldn’t find in any other place.

And a final note about purgatory: It was an ecumenical service, but I was fascinated how each prayer spoken was actually a prayer for the dead. We kept hearing phrases like: ‘May they find the fulfilment in God they were longing for’; ‘May they rest in peace’; ‘May they come face to face with the Lord’. All of these ‘may they…’ prayers suggest, theologically, that there is still something to be achieved or worked out for those who have died. In other words, this wasn’t just a service of remembrance – whatever the service sheet suggested – it was also a service of prayer for the dead. I don’t think this was very conscious or theologically explicit, but it shows how hard it is to just remember the dead without actually praying for them – at a psychological level. And a Catholic would add that this makes theological sense as well!

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Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone [...].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

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I don’t use Twitter much, although WordPress tweets my blog posts automatically. But I’m aware of the changes taking place in people’s views about what is socially acceptable. Many people, today, would answer a call mid-conversation, or check a text, or text back – all without interrupting the flow of the discussion, or with a half-acknowledged pressing of the pause button.

The desire to tweet not just later but while you are still within the experience is part of the nature of Twitter. It’s about sharing the ‘now’ and not just the ‘yesterday’ or ‘a few minutes ago’.

But how does this affect, socially, those experiences that are traditionally meant to be uninterrupted – like going to the theatre? Is it just rude?

And at a more philosophical level, am I changing the nature of the experience, distancing myself from it, and perhaps distorting it, if I’m already sharing the experience with others and providing my own commentary even before it has finished?

There is something to do with quantum physics and the uncertainty principle and waves collapsing into particles and dead cats here – but I don’t have the time to get my creative thoughts straight.

David Lister writes about the morality of tweeting in the theatre:

Which brings me to Twitter. For here the etiquette of polite concentration in the auditorium is being challenged. People have been tweeting at the theatre. In a cinema, a light from a mobile phone is also irritating, but it does happen, and to no great protest. However the thought of it at a live performance is rather more disturbing.

It turns out that theatre tweeters are not chatting aimlessly on Twitter, but trying to be the first to post a reaction to the performance they are seeing. And this seems to mean getting it posted before the curtain comes down. It was reported at a performance of the current run of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and raised in a Q and A after the performance. And I have seen it happening, not always that discreetly, in London’s West End.

There’s little doubt that it disturbs other audience members, and probably even cast members. And, of course, one hopes that people are too busy concentrating on the action to fish their mobile out of their pocket or bag. On the other hand, they are engaged enough to want a post a review.

Is the answer, I wonder, a relatively recent American phenomenon, the tweet seats? This started at a theatre in Los Angeles and has spread to a number of other big cities, with at least one theatre on Broadway now threatening to get in on the act. A section of seating on the side of the auditorium (so that the lights from the phones – in theory – don’t disturb the rest of the audience) is reserved as tweet seats.

The first instinct of any regular theatre-goer is to foam at the mouth. But perhaps we should acknowledge the inevitable. OK, I’d be much more inclined to put them in the balcony, as the side of the stalls feels a little too visible. Why not make a small part of the balcony a silent tweeting zone for those who want it?

A few decades ago it would have been near unthinkable to take drinks into the auditorium. Now it’s commonplace. I suspect that in less than a decade tweet seats will be commonplace too.

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There are so many reports in the press and adverts on the tube for IVF that you’d think it was the only form of fertility treatment on offer to couples who are struggling to conceive a child.

A friend of mine,  Leonora Paasche Butau, has been studying bioethics, theology of the body, and fertility management for the last few years. I recently read this report from her on the ICN website about the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, and the pioneering alternatives to IVF that they have been developing.

The Pope Paul VI Institute is the brainchild of the bold and courageous Dr Thomas Hilgers, MD and his wife Sue Hilgers who founded the institute in 1985 as a response to the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI, in this encyclical letter, expressed the Catholic Church’s longstanding tradition on marital life and love and called on “men of science” to direct their research to reproductive healthcare which fully respects life and the dignity of marriage and women. Dr Hilgers, as a young medical student in 1968, felt that the Church was speaking directly to him through this letter and by December of that same year he started his first research project to better understand natural fertility regulation and women’s health care.

The results of years of study and research have been phenomenal. The Pope Paul VI Institute has developed a new and superior approach to women’s reproductive health care which embodies the best principles of medicine and builds up the culture of life in a world which finds its solutions in contraception, sterilisation and abortion.

The Institutes 30+ years of research has seen the development of the highly successful Creighton Model Fertility Care System (CrMS) and NaProTechnology (Natural Procreative Technology) which has reached 14 countries around the world.

NaProTechnology allows a couple to observe certain biological markers to determine when they are naturally fertile and infertile so that they can either avoid or achieve pregnancy. In addition to this, it is a very effective tool in identifying and treating underlying causes of infertility with success rates up to three times higher than In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). It would seem that the current philosophy of reproductive medicine does not seek to treat underlying diseases meaning that millions of women suffer from infertility without ever knowing the reason. Although IVF is by far the most common approach to the treatment of infertility, the women who undergo treatment using IVF would still remain with the underlying diseases which are causing the infertility to begin with.

As well as being used to treat infertility, NaProTechnology helps to obtain proper diagnosis and effective treatment for a range of other health and gynaecological problems and abnormalities such as recurrent miscarriage, premenstrual syndrome, postpartum depression and abnormal bleeding ‒ offering great hope to women.

Another of the unique contributions of NaProTechnology is the empowerment of women that comes with the knowledge and self-awareness of their bodies and their reproductive cycles.

Dr Anne Carus, a NaPro Specialist doctor from Life Fertility Care in Leamington Spa, states: “with NaProTechnology couples cycle charting empowers them through education.  We find couples value the active contribution that they are able to make to the diagnostic and treatment process. NaProTechnology provides an individualised medical support. Our annual audit indicates that 89% of our clients would have found it helpful to receive information about NaProTechnology from their GP practice. Couples find it difficult to find real support to natural conception within the NHS.”

The research of Dr Thomas Hilgers – at a time when it is difficult for many obstetrician-gynecologists to practice their profession without prescribing oral contraceptives, carrying out sterilisations or referring patients for procedures such as IVF ‒ is testament to his faith in Christ and commitment to responding to the challenges of Humanae Vitae.

For more information see the website of the Institute here. See the articles here from the UK Life Fertility Care site. And for more general issues about fertility and for practical help in the UK see the Life Fertility Care site itself.

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Go and see Ruby Sparks. I nearly walked out after fifteen minutes, because it seemed like the most saccharine and cliché-ridden romantic comedy. But then she appears – the writer’s dream becomes his reality – and you realise that under the guise of a good-natured rom-com there lies a dark and disturbing psycho-drama and a clever philosophical meditation on love, power, freedom and identity. It’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year.

Minor plot-spoilers follow, but not much more than is in the trailer. He is a writer; he starts writing about a woman who has appeared in his dreams, and he creates the perfect woman who will fill his lonely heart. Then she appears, for real, and after the slapstick scenes of him and his brother coming to terms with that, he has to get on with the business of really knowing and loving her.

And of course the person he has created stops fitting into his model. So he breaks his self-imposed rule, and starts re-writing who she is, even as he is in the middle of the relationship. It goes funny, and pear-shaped, and self-defeating, and then very, very dark, before the inevitable (and I thought quite beautiful) light-filled resolution.

Like any good fairy-tale or parable, it presents in an outlandish form something that is so normal we have stopped seeing it. In this case, that we are attracted to people (not just romantically) because they match what we find attractive, what we hope to find in another; and that – often – we subtly and not-so-subtly pressure and manipulate people to conform to our expectations of what the relationship should be about.

So there is a joy in discovering ‘the other’, but the other is objectified and can become a projection of our own hopes. Then we realise that they are more than the person we want them to be – they are the person they want to be, and a person we may never appreciate or even understand.

Is the first kind of attraction inherently narcissistic and manipulative? Is all love, at least at the beginning, a form of fantasy? How do we keep the delight in finding someone who fits with our dreams at the same time as giving them the space to surprise and unsettle and disturb? We objectify someone, but we can’t live with an object for very long.

And if, to take the questioning much further, the person begins to realise that they have in some sense been created by another, where does that leave them? How do we set them free, without losing everything? How do they set themselves free? This isn’t such a fantasy: think of the myriad ways in which we have all been ‘created’, formed, by others – by parents, teachers, friends, culture, society…

I’m being very heavy, because I came away with my head spinning. It’s not as heavy as I have made it out – in fact it feels like a bit of fluff. That’s what makes it so clever, it’s a breezy romcom that reads, afterwards, like a lecture in philosophy or psychology. It’s intriguing and great fun.

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