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See this article by Fr Martin Boland at Jericho Tree:

Opening “a liturgical Pandora’s box”? A parish priest reflects on the “family Mass”

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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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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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wedding rings

Here is the gay marriage question no-one seems to be asking: If it’s all the same, then what’s the difference? With so much talk about equality, love, commitment and stability, is there simply no difference between gay marriage and marriage between a man and a woman? Is there absolutely nothing distinctive about marriage as it has traditionally been understood?

The answer is obvious but too easily forgotten: A life-long commitment between a man and a woman is a relationship involving sexual difference, involving male-female complementarity. For this reason, it allows children to be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents, and it is a form of commitment and family life that allows children to grow up with their own natural parents over a lifetime. This simply isn’t possible for a same-sex couple.

This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children. It’s simply a recognition that one distinctive aspect of this kind of male-female relationship is that, in ordinary circumstances, it can involve conceiving and bringing up their own children. (It’s not uncommon to talk about the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of something, even if there are exceptions. For example, it’s a distinctive characteristic of human beings that we use language; and the fact that some human beings cannot talk or choose not to talk does not undermine this).

This is not a religious argument (appealing to the Bible, the Anglican marriage service, or the Pope); it’s not a historical or sociological argument (highlighting national traditions or cultural norms); it’s not even a moral argument (although it does have moral implications). Nor is it a crude ‘biologist’ argument, reducing people to their genitalia and their reproductive capacities, because sexuality involves the whole person and not just procreation.

It is actually a humanist argument, appealing to an irrefutable truth about human nature that any rational person can acknowledge: that children can only be conceived by a man and a woman, and that marriage between their own parents is a form of family life that will allow children to grow up within the life-long embrace of their natural mother and father.

We have a word for this kind of life-long and public commitment between a man and a woman: it’s called marriage. It doesn’t exclude the fact that there are many other kinds of relationships, some of them involving love, stability and life-long commitments; nor does it rule out other forms of family life that come about for all sorts of different reasons. We have an assortment of words to help us understand some of the distinctions (‘marriage’ being one of them), and we need these words for the sake of clarity and honesty about some of the differences there are between different kinds of relationships.

This is why it’s misleading and even deceptive to claim that allowing gay marriage would make no difference to traditional marriage and to all those men and women who are already married. It’s often asked, rhetorically: What harm would it do? What difference would it make? Is it not just about allowing more people to share in the benefits of marriage? Is it not just about adding something rather than taking something away? Are we not simply increasing rights and widening the franchise?

This is simply untrue. If marriage is redefined to include gay marriage, it means that the core understanding of marriage will no longer include that aspect of sexual difference and complementarity, and that aspect of creating a family where one’s own children may be conceived and raised (even if this doesn’t happen for every couple). The definition of marriage will be narrowed (or perhaps we should say widened) to a relationship of love, friendship and mutual support. This is not just an addition or a minor change; it is a radical undoing of marriage as it is commonly understood. It makes it impossible for a man and woman to have their marriage recognised as a union that involves sexual-difference, because they are being told – in the new definition – that their sexual difference has nothing to do with the nature of their marriage. A right has been taken away and not just added.

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The fact is, of course, that many men and women will continue to marry, and the majority of them will conceive and raise their own children. Marriage as it has traditionally been understood will seem to go on, but we won’t have a specific word or public institution for it any more; and the irony is that if we are not allowed to use the word ‘marriage’ we will have to invent one which describes exactly what the word marriage used to describe.

But this is not just about words and definitions. Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

This non-religious and non-moral humanistic fact does lead to a moral question: Is it good and desirable, all things being equal, for parents to conceive and bring up their own natural children, and for children to be brought up within the loving union of their own natural mother and father? Most people would say yes. This isn’t to discriminate against other forms of relationship and other forms of parenting and family life, it is simply to acknowledge the unique meaning of marriage between a man and a woman, and to recognise that this distinctive relationship brings particular benefits to individuals and to society. That’s why we have a special word for this relationship, ‘marriage’; and that’s why this relationship is ‘institutionalised’ and given a special place in our society.

To deny the distinctive nature of marriage between a man and a woman, and to promote gay marriage, is actually to deny the commonly held assumption that (all things being equal) it is good for children to be brought up by their own natural mother and father. This might seem like a big leap of logic, but it’s true: To define marriage only in terms of love, commitment, stability, etc – to make gay marriage ‘equal’ – means that there will no longer be any social or legal recognition of the particular family unit where children are conceived and raised by their own natural mother and father in a public and life-long commitment. At present, we recognise different kinds of family life, and we preserve a special place in our society for the kind of family where parents can try to raise their own natural children in the context of a life-long and public commitment, and where children can grow up with their own natural parents in this same context. If gay marriage legislation is passed, it will no longer be possible to promote the idea that marriage between a man and a woman has a distinctive meaning and a particular benefit for children and for society.

Let me try to summarise all this. The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

[Last edited - in response to feedback - on 19 Dec 2012]

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A friend sent a link to this article by Tim Kreider about our need to be busy all the time. Is he being harsh? Is it really all self-imposed? Are we really this dysfunctional, this afraid, this disconnected, this fidgety?

Or is this really about America, or about New York – and everything is fine here in London thank you very much?

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Read on here if you want.

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When I was ‘researching’ the parenting booklet, one of the topics that came up again and again in the responses was the importance of families sitting down to eat together regularly.

Since then I found this article by Richard Corrigan, a London chef, who explains why he is supporting a research project that is looking into the effects of mealtimes on family life and social cohesion.

I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

Well, the usefulness of family meals is no fantasy. You would expect me, as a life-long restaurateur, to argue in favour of the positive effects of people breaking bread together. I watch people do it everyday. It is one of the reasons I love my work.

But I am equally passionate about the importance of meals in the home. My wife, Maria, and our three children – Richard, Jessica and Robert – try to sit down and eat together as often as we can. This has always felt like common sense. It worked for me as a boy growing up north of Dublin and, although there is less greenery around us at our home in north London, it works for me as a father.

It is one of the reasons I agreed to become the patron of a British think tank which tries to put some hard science behind the soft glow of a good home. The Home Renaissance Foundation was founded by my friend Sir Bryan Sanderson, a former managing director of BP and chairman of BUPA. He wanted to promote an understanding and an appreciation of what our homes can do when they work well. Research by the Home Renaissance Foundation shows us that family meals should not be dismissed as so much 1950s retro.

According to economics professor Dr Sophia Aguirre, who wrote a paper for the Foundation about this, family dinners generate “human capital”. Kids who sit down regularly with parents and siblings do better at exams than those who don’t. Rates of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders are also lower. Her graphs show that what really matters is the quality of the time together. As soon as a television is switched on during a family meal, a lot of the good socialising stops.

Now, you could argue that, if kids have parents who are up to organising a family meal at the dining table, those children already have a headstart.

For one thing, many of the homes we build nowadays have no room for a dining table. And if it’s not the building, it’s the people. In chaotic families, the routine that regular meal times need just isn’t there.

But Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.

Here is the introduction to the ‘Meals and Food’ chapter of the parenting booklet:

Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on, can bring so many blessings to family life. It gives your children time with you, and time with each other. It allows you to listen, to talk, and to share things. It gives rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week – which is so important for the children. It puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life.

Eating together gives space for personalities to grow, for language to develop, for ideas to emerge. It gives a simple way of praying together, if you say grace before meals, and pray in thanksgiving after them. And you make sure that the children are eating well!

This is hard for many people. There are activities after school. Perhaps you have shift-work. The children want to go out or do homework or watch TV. Or the simple fact is that you are not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together. But the long-term benefits are absolutely huge. Regular meals together – or as regular as is possible for you – are one of the keys to good family life.

And here is one of the quotes about how meals depend on tables!

Just having a table is important! Some of the families in our parish didn’t have a kitchen or dining table to sit round for meals at home. We spoke about this in the Holy Communion classes, and helped one or two to get a table. It doesn’t have to be expensive. They came back and said what a difference it made – talking, listening, and sometimes arguing, and then making up; just being together in a way that doesn’t happen if you don’t make time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the cover:

Here is the Introduction:

INTRODUCTION: How Not To Use This Booklet

Every child is different. Every parent is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the back-cover copy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see all the donating options here.

You can donate online by PayPal here.

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

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

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

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

TNTN10  £10

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Voices analyses this much better than I can:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sir Paul Coleridge spoke last week about his newly established Marriage Foundation, which seeks to halt the ‘appalling and costly impact of family breakdown’.

A marriage stone lintel, which marks the initials of the newly married couple, and the date of the wedding. A nice connection with the previous post about marking lintels for the Epiphany

He certainly knows how to frame a provocative soundbite:

Almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family

Matthew Holehouse reports:

Sir Paul wishes to encourage people not to have children unless their relationship is stable, and if it is stable, to encourage them to get married.

“Marriage, as the best structure in which to raise children, needs to be affirmed, strengthened and supported. Recycle your rubbish by all means, but be very slow to recycle your partner,” he told The Times.

“We have to rid ourselves of this dream that we are going to find the partner who is perfect in every way: emotionally, physically, intellectually – it’s just a nonsense.

“People want to change horses mid-stream – it’s the disease of the modern age. Soon you find the new partner is as flawed as the last. It is like a hydra: you cut off one head and get rid of a boring partner but inherit 26 new problems, your new partner’s children, family and so on.”

Family breakdown is the “scourge of society”, he added. “It affects everyone, from the Royal Family downwards. In about 1950 you weren’t allowed in the royal enclosure at Ascot [if divorced]. That would now exclude half the Royal Family.”

“It is a myth that children, even older ones, don’t care. They care greatly and a break-up shocks the whole foundation of the family, it never recovers.”

“My message is mend it — don’t end it. Over 40 years of working in the family justice system, I have seen the fall-out of these broken relationships. There are an estimated 3.8 million children currently caught up in the family justice system. I personally think that’s a complete scandal.”

Leaving aside the practical question of exactly which laws and tax-incentives might support the institution of marriage, it’s remarkable that Nick Clegg can characterise marriage as simply a private commitment without any public/social implications.

In a Lib Dem disagreement with the Conservatives about tax breaks for marriage couples he said there was a limit on what the state “should seek to do in organising people’s private relationships” [my italics].

Getting married is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. But just as a liberal I think there are limits to how the state and government should try to micromanage or incentivise people’s own behaviour in their private lives [my italics].

This contrasts with David Cameron at the Conservative Party Conference last October, where at least he recognised the importance of marriage for children, and by implication for society in general – even though there are other equally important questions about how he defines marriage.

Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life.

It gives children stability. And it says powerful things about what we should value. So yes, we will recognise marriage in the tax system.

Tim Ross reports on some of the differences within the coalition.

[In a speech to the Demos think-tank] Mr Clegg will say: “We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the 1950s model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, home-making mother – and try and preserve it in aspic.

“That’s why open society liberals and big society conservatives will take a different view on a tax break for marriage.”

Mr Clegg will argue that liberal values are more important than ever as the world faces deep economic uncertainty and risks turning inwards.

“Conservatives, by definition, tend to defend the status quo, embracing change reluctantly and often after the event,” he will say. Senior Conservatives retaliated Mr Clegg yesterday. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, told Sky News: “We are two parties in the coalition. Of course there are things on which we have different views.

“We as Conservatives believe strongly in supporting marriage and the family. The Liberal Democrats take a different view. We accept that family is not always the same thing as it has been in the past. “But we have always argued that we should support the family, that we should support marriage in the tax system.

We think we need to strengthen the institution of marriage in our society.” He insisted that the “differences of emphasis” did not mean the Liberal Democrats were not “valued partners” in government.

Mr Grayling’s stance was supported by Gavin Poole, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank founded by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Poole said Mr Clegg’s argument “flies in the face of all the evidence” demonstrating how important marriage is to well-being of children.

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For anyone interested in questions about marriage and the family, Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is taking new students for the MA course which beings again this January. [This is last year's poster.]

To save time I’m just copying this helpful summary from the Witness to Love website from earlier this year:

A new course has just begun at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic distance-learning College. It is an MA programme in Marriage and Family based on the teaching and vision of John Paul II (especially his Theology of the Body) drawn up in close collaboration with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. The new MA programme runs via distance learning on somewhat similar lines to Open University courses and promises to be a really exciting and innovative way to bring the wisdom and beauty of John Paul II’s teaching to others.

The Maryvale Institute was also the home of Blessed John Newman in 1846 after his conversion when he lived there with a small community. Maryvale is also a former seminary (1794-1838) and orphanage (1851-1980) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It houses the historic and beautiful Chapel of the Sacred Heart from its seminary period and has also today houses a convent for Bridgettine sisters since 1999.
The new MA pathway “seeks to develop an ‘adequate anthropology’ through the study of God’s plan for marriage and family” (see pathway No. 6 here). It is therefore interdisciplinary and could be of interest to students from a wide variety of backgrounds such as teachers, priests, youth workers, those involved in marriage care, medicine or family law.

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On Sunday afternoon I met with a group of young adults to talk about the Christian understanding of work. It’s an important topic!

Very often people don’t think about it – even those who have a deep faith. They just go to work and get on with it; and perhaps they bring it to prayer when they are about to lose their job, or when they are seeking a new one. But not much more reflection than that. Or they ‘over-Christianise’ work, and think that as Christians they ought to be doing something that is ‘holy’ (which is half-true), which usually means something that is in the charitable sector or in one of the caring professions – and if they are not, they end up feeling guilty and a bit inadequate about their more mundane job.

So what is the meaning of work for a Christian?

A couple of paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very helpful (2427-8):

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honours the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.

It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.

In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labour stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work.

Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

So there are a number of different motives for human work, different meanings, and they all have their place in the divine plan. One is not more ‘holy’ than another. It’s worth putting them into a more systematic list, and then seeing what each of them means for one’s own job – whatever it is.

Why get up in the morning? Why go to work? Here is the list. We work: (1) to earn money so that we can live and so that we can support our family; (2) to share in God’s work of creation through what we are actually doing; (3) as a way of serving others or contributing to the good of others – directly or indirectly; (4) to honour God by using our gifts and talents and fulfilling our potential; (5) as a way of bringing the Spirit of Christ to bear on ordinary life; (6) as an opportunity for us to grow in holiness; and (7) as a way of sharing in the redemptive work of Christ, above all by accepting the suffering and hardship of work.

Notice how the theology here is both idealistic and realistic at the same time. There is the nitty-gritty of simply needing some cash so that we and our family can live – and that is a good thing, not to be despised. There is the idealism of sharing in God’s creative and redemptive work, of fulfilling our potential, of serving others, etc. But there is also the realism that work is often hard and at many levels unfulfilling, yet it still has a meaning – as an opportunity to grow in virtue and offer up our difficulties to the Father in a spirit of sacrifice and faith.

What’s missing? Perhaps something about how we work, often, simply because we enjoy it (perhaps this comes under ‘fulfilling our potential’), or because we like being with people, or because we have a vision or passion for what we are doing, or because our parents, for example, have pushed us into following a certain career path. Maybe these extra ideas fit into the main list somehow.

And notice how many questions it raises. How do we know what job to take (if indeed we have a choice at all)? What if we can’t find any work? What if our work is destructive (morally? culturally? environmentally?) rather than creative? What if we are not using our talents, but apparently wasting them? What if the work is so hard or degrading that it becomes a form of injustice or oppression? What if we are required to be involved in wrongdoing or illegality – directly or indirectly? Or if we know about others at our workplace who are involved in such things? Is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it wrong to want to do better than others in order to succeed? What if the culture of work is damaging our relationships, our family life, our ability to live our faith? And a thousand other questions – many of which we discussed on Sunday.

I’m not going to try to answer them all here! Maybe there is material for some future posts here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[I gave this homily on Saturday at the First Profession of Sister Mary Benedicta Chinwe Obiora, in the chapel of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, Lymington.]

Most of us here today are guests of the community. I just want to say to Sister Mary Benedicta and to all the community how happy we are to be here with you, and how grateful we are for the chance to witness this profound step you are taking.

We know what an incredible journey this has been for you – to arrive at this day of your First Profession. A geographical journey, from Nigeria to London, and from London to the New Forest, with one or two detours in between. A journey of faith, coming to know the Lord better, drawing closer to him. And above all it has been a journey of vocation, trying to listen to God’s call – his personal call to you, speaking to your heart, and speaking through so many people and events.

Abraham only had to travel a few hundred miles when he heard the call of the Lord, from Haran to the Holy Land. You have travelled many thousands of miles. But then he was travelling on a camel, not a 747; so we should give him some credit [Genesis 12].

A vocation to religious life is a mysterious thing. It’s full of paradoxes, of apparent contradictions. The Scripture readings of the Mass help us to understand them in the right way.

On the one hand, a religious vocation is always an unexpected call. It comes as a surprise. It startles and even shocks us. It’s not something we plan.

At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary quite unexpectedly: ‘Hail, O highly favoured one. The Lord is with you’ [Luke 1:28]. That’s why she was so disturbed. She wasn’t sitting there on the edge of her seat, tapping her watch, thinking ‘When is he going to arrive then?’

This is why, in Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings, Mary is always doing something when the Angel comes: praying, reading, sewing, etc. One of my favourite modern images of the Annunciation depicts Mary hanging out the washing on a blustery afternoon, and the angel almost swoops down between the sheets – to her utter astonishment.

So a vocation is an unexpected call.

On the other hand, a religious vocation is a dream that lies hidden within the heart, because God always calls us to be the person that we long to be, the person we are made to be – even if we don’t quite realise or acknowledge it at the time. It’s his heart speaking to our heart.

This was the phrase of St Francis de Sales, which as we know became the motto of Blessed John Henry Newman: Heart speaks unto heart.

So you are listening to the call of God, and at the same time listening to its echo in your own heart: Who am I? What does God want of me? What do I really seek for myself? Ultimately, they will come together, if we keep listening and keep following.

Another paradox is to do with relationships. On the one hand, we seem to lose so much, to be going further and further away from those we love. This was part of Abraham’s experience, put so starkly in the command that God gave him: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ [Genesis 12:1].

And this is part of Sister Benedicta’s experience. To leave one’s family, one’s home, one’s country; to leave one’s work, one’s parish, one’s set of friends and companions. It’s hard.

But in the Letter to the Romans today, St Paul explains something very important about the spiritual journey. That the closer we come to Christ, the closer we come to others – even if we are separated by a great distance. And the more faithfully we live our own personal vocation, the more connected we will be in Christ’s body, which is the Church.

‘For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness’ [Romans 12:4-8].

We have different gifts, different vocations; but we are all united in the one body. Of course, at the emotional level, we miss people; we wish we could be with them, talking, touching. But at the deepest level of faith, of charity, never forget how close you are to those you love. There is no separation in Christ; and in a mysterious way, your vocation brings you closer to your family and friends, because you are rooted more firmly in the love that binds you together.

A final paradox is about obedience. You are certainly making a lot of promises today! I’ve read the Profession. You promise obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic, to the Prioress, to her successors, to the Master of the Order of Preachers, according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of your Congregation. Lots of obeying! Plenty of people to listen to! You seem to be losing so much freedom.

But this isn’t really true. First, you are making this profession freely, you are embracing this life freely; just as Mary said Yes to the angel with absolute freedom.

And secondly, you are making this profession in order to have a deeper experience of the freedom that comes through religious life, and specifically through the life of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph. You believe that there is something important for you here: the prayer, the love and example of your sisters, the apostolate, the way of St Dominic and St Catherine. You have discovered an inner freedom here, and you want to enter into it more fully.

It’s not a lifelong commitment, but it is nevertheless, for this important period in your life, a wholehearted commitment; so that you can experience with your whole heart, without reservation, the life of this community and this vocation.

When he called Abraham, God promised to bless him and to bless others through him. He makes that same promise to you today.

[Click here if you want to find out more about the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph]

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You may not have seen the recent Unicef report about the way materialism has come to dominate family life in Britain. What children really want, says the report, is to spend time with family and friends, to take part in group activities such as sporting events, and simply to be outside. What they are getting instead, very often, is more stuff. Parents are working such long hours in Britain, compared with other countries, and when they do get home they are too tired to spend time with their children. So they buy toys and gadgets to compensate. That’s the gist.

Nintendo DS Lite

John Bingham summaries some of the conclusions of the report:

In its latest study Unicef commissioned researchers from Ipsos Mori interviewed hundreds of children in Britain, Sweden and Spain, asking them about their ideas of happiness and success.

Researchers found that consumerism was less deeply embedded in Sweden and Spain, which rank significantly higher for the wellbeing of children.

British parents work longer hours and are simply “too tired” to play with their children whom in turn they can no longer control.

Families across the country, irrespective of social class or race, are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together, with children often left to their own devices.

In British households television is increasingly used as a “babysitter”, while children’s bedrooms have become “media bedsits” with computers, games consoles and widescreen TVs taking the place of dolls houses or model aeroplanes.

The report found that children from poorer families were also less likely to take part in outdoor activities than those in the other countries, opting for a “sedentary” lifestyle in front of the television or computer games. The trend was more marked in teenagers.

Among the more startling examples of obsessive consumerism uncovered by the report was a mother fretting over whether to buy a Nintendo DS games system for her three-year-old son convinced that he would be bullied if she did not get him one.

In Sweden family time was embedded into the “natural rhythm” of daily life with parents sharing mealtimes, fishing trips, sporting events or evenings in with their children.

While in Spain fathers tended to work long hours, children enjoyed more attention from their mothers and wider family circle.

But in Britain, some parents spoke of having “given up” on taking their children to organised activities.

The report, authored by Dr Agnes Nairn, an academic and marketing expert, said: “Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist.”

She concluded that there was an “enormous difference” between Britain and other countries.

She said: “While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, [their] parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden.”

Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, adds:

We are teaching our children, practically from the moment they are born, that the one thing that matters is getting more stuff.

We are probably the most secular society in the world, we do not have the counterbalance of religion but at the same time we are a very driven society very into progress and making money.

How does one react to all this? Is it just about making parents feel guilty for things that are beyond their control? Is family life really imploding in the way described in this report? Are there simple (guilt-free) changes a family can make to improve the quality of relationships and give children what they really want and need from their parents? Any practical suggestions?

[You can read the full report here]

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I don’t post about every sermon I preach, but here are a few lines from a nuptial Mass I celebrated at the weekend about the difficulty and the importance of making promises today:

Lasso Lumineux

There is something very beautiful and very simple about the wedding vows that you will make in just a few moments time. A man and a woman promise to love each other without reservation for the rest of their lives, and to embrace all the implications of that love: To love for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. To love the whole person, with their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. And to be open to the new life that love always brings; whether that is through the gift of children, or through the life-giving love that flows from your friendships and openness to others.

It’s hard for people to make promises today, partly because we are unsure about so many things. Unsure about the future; unsure about who the other person will become; unsure about what we want now; and even more unsure about what we might want in the distant future.

But there is a paradox here. Making a promise is what actually makes something sure. When you promise to be faithful to each other, come what may, you give a security and strength to this love. We talk about ‘the bond of marriage’, not because it is a chain to take away your freedom, but because it creates a space in which you can keep loving each other, freely – which is what you both want most of all.

I was the priest at a friend’s wedding a few years ago. She’s Mexican, and they have this tradition of the lasso – you may have heard of it. As soon as the wedding vows are made, the families of the couple bring a lasso to the front of the church – one of these huge ropes that you catch cattle with – and literally tie the couple together as they sit beside each other. The bride, my Mexican friend, is grinning like a Cheshire cat; while the groom, who hasn’t got a drop of Mexican blood in him, is sitting there very self-consciously, with a face that says ‘what on earth is going on?!’

Now I’m not recommending this today; I’m just giving it to you as a symbol. When you make these vows, something big happens. You bind yourselves to each other; and God takes you at your word and puts his own seal on your marriage. It’s a bond of love. It’s the security given by your own promises, and by the promise of God.

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I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect, about ‘How three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale’.

First, Maushart describes the extent to which electronic media were an inescapable part of their family life:

At ages fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen, my daughters and my son don’t use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there [...]

For Generation M, as the Kaiser report dubbed these eight- to eighteen-year-olds, media use is not an activity – like exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the back seat. It’s an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything kids do and say and think.

Then why did she have so many doubts and uncertainties?

“Only connect”, implored E.M. Forster in his acclaimed novel Howards End

So… How connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? As a social scientist, journalist, and mother, I’ve always been an enthusiastic user of information technology (and I’m awfully fond of my dryer too). But I was also growing sceptical of the redemptive power of media to improve our lives – let alone to make them ‘easier’ or simplify them. Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family. (Talk about a disconnect!)

There were contradictions on a broader scale too – and they have been widely noted. That the more facts we have at our fingertips, the less we seem to know. That the ‘convenience’ of messaging media (e-mail, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger and more indigestable chunks of our time and headspace. That as a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived. Basically, I started considering a scenario E.M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

What’s your experience? Has all this connectivity made us more connected? Happy? Freer? Less alone? More alive? More at peace with ourselves and one with each other?

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What do men really want? Not (apparently) beautiful women, fast cars, and an endless supply of free beer; but a life of duty, service, and self-sacrifice.

Robert Crampton wonders why the contemporary Western male is not happier than his father or grandfather, when he is ‘richer, safer, healthier, more long-lived, with a huge choice of leisure pursuits, lifestyles and material goods’. The answer, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that he is looking for happiness by seeking pleasure, rather than by cultivating virtue. He is following the path of Epicurus rather than Aristotle. And it isn’t working. ["What really makes men happy?" by Robert Crampton, The Times Magazine, 27/11/10, p54-59]

Live for today, the mantra that dominates our culture, simply does not work for most men. Men want to live for tomorrow. Men need goals, plans, causes, beliefs, structures, direction. Men are not natural Epicureans. Men crave the virtue Aristotle espoused.

That virtue can be found in small, everyday ways. The morning that I came into work to start this article, one of my colleagues, Jo, waylaid me by my desk. “Robert,” she said, “you strike me as a man who might have a screwdriver in his desk.” “I haven’t, I’m afraid,” I had to say. “What do you need a screwdriver for?” “My glasses have gone floppy,” said Jo, holding out her specs, the arms of which had indeed gone floppy. “Give them here,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I spent the next ten minutes experimenting with various tools attempting to tighten the screw at the side of Jo’s glasses, trying out in succession a penknife, teaspoon and paperclip in lieu of what was actually required, a tiny Phillips screwdriver. Eventually a bent staple fitted the screw head and gained traction. Thirty seconds later, Jo’s glasses were no longer floppy. She was duly grateful, I went back to work in a glow of satisfaction, of wellbeing and, yes, of happiness.

Why did this small action make me happy? Partly, but only partly, because Jo’s a woman and I’m a man. Partly my happiness came from sticking at a slightly awkward task, seeing it through, finding a solution. Partly it came from working with my hands, which I rarely do. And partly – mostly, I think – I derived a degree of pleasure from the fact that they were someone else’s glasses. I’d done a no-strings favour. Jo had asked for my help, I’d been able to oblige. Nothing in it for me. Except, happy as it made me, it turned out there was.

It’s not just about doing little favours and getting a glow of satisfaction from them. It’s about the whole direction of one’s life.

Men have an immense capacity for self-sacrifice. Not just a capacity, I would argue, but a need. Not all men, perhaps. But most. Male self-sacrifice is there in many of the key stories and myths of our culture, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to the Battle of Britain.

For most of human history, what it has meant to be a man has involved self-sacrifice. Not only the patriotic self-sacrifice of war, also the peacetime sacrifice of doing a demanding, possibly dangerous job to provide for others. Or devoting yourself to a political, social or religious cause. Or simply having children and taking full responsibility for their welfare.

But these days, most men don’t dedicate themselves to creating Utopias, and aren’t involved in wars, or mining coal, or deep-sea fishing, or striving to lift their families out of poverty. All of which is a good thing.

A lot of men reach middle age unmarried and without children, which isn’t such a good thing, in my opinion – not for society, not for them. The reason married men are happier than bachelors is not, as in the caricature, because marriage allows husbands to grow lazy while a wife runs around for us. It’s the opposite: we’re happier because we’re almost certainly, to some degree or other, acting for someone’s benefit other than our own. I became a father at 33, which seems young from where I am now. Even so, I wish I’d done it sooner.

And it’s not just that we have lost the plot as individuals. The reason we have lost the individual plot is that we do not have the social networks there to remind us what really matters.

Our fathers and grandfathers had institutions to cultivate their virtue for them: the Church, the Army, early marriage, a lifelong, cumulative career building towards expertise and respect, a trade union, a political cause, an extended family network. Such bonds have either been loosened, or are gone.

In losing their access to these institutions and beliefs, men lost something else, too: the company of other like-minded men. A couple of generations back, men would work and play exclusively with other men. We did that too much. Now we probably don’t do it enough. Many of my contemporaries socialise with their partners or not at all. They have friends, but they are in some way estranged from them.

I like these ideas. But I’m not convinced by Crampton’s solutions. He wants us to live sacrificial lives as if we were living for a higher cause (with all the generosity and virtue that our grandfathers brought to their own causes), even if we are not sure about what the foundations of our own convictions and goals are. In the absence of God he appeals to conscience. It’s certainly better to follow your conscience than not to follow it. But I don’t think you can serve your conscience. It’s your conscience that helps you to serve and give your life to something that is more important than yourself: your family, your friends, your country, your God, those in need, etc. Conscience is a means to an end. But what if you have no identifiable end?

See what you think of Cramptons concluding remarks:

So what is to be done? Join the Army? Downshift to the country and become a lumberjack? Some things you can’t control: you can’t rustle up a morally bombproof cause like the defeat of fascism to fight for. You can’t start believing in a God whom you don’t think exists. You can’t go back to the days when your grandfather dedicated himself to lifting his family out of poverty. But what you can do is take the elements worth preserving from the institutions and activities and beliefs that we have lost and put them to work again.

You don’t have to be a labourer to spend time working with your hands. You don’t have to be a soldier or a sportsman to be fit rather than fat and lazy. You don’t need to be an intellectual to read a decent book. You don’t need to pretend to be thick and crude when you’re not. You don’t need to be a hero to take some responsibility for the world around you. You don’t have to be a revolutionary – it’s better if you’re not – to make that world a better place in small ways. You don’t have to be a monk to spend time alone to work out what you think about something, and what you need to do.

And you don’t, of course, need to be a believer to live according to a moral code. Most surveys conclude that the devout are happier than the faithless. It’s not clear why that is, but it might be because the belief that you are being judged by a higher authority is a superbly moderating influence on male behaviour. You don’t have to call that higher authority God. You can call it conscience. Pretty much everybody has one. When we live in rough accordance with our consciences, we’re happy. When we don’t, we’re not.

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The magazine section of BBC Online did a piece on celibacy recently. On the day it was posted it was the ‘most read’ story on the whole BBC site for a few hours, perhaps because the editors were clever enough to give it the title “What is a life without sex like?”

I helped with the article, and they posted my own reflections in full on a separate page, which I have copied here:

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.

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Loneliness by Aditya Grandhi.

Richard Dowden writes about the loneliness that so many people experience in the West. The fact that more and more people live alone; the fact that even when we are in the same physical space together we often want to preserve a sense of privacy and isolation. He contrasts this with the ‘communalism’ he has found in Africa.

There, whenever I find myself alone, people join me, not necessarily to talk, or out of politeness to a stranger, but to have human company. What is awkward is to leave someone alone. To be alone is abnormal. When I have said I want to be alone people ask if I am ill.

It is hard to be alone in Africa. Everyone has family. A person without relations is nothing. And family in Africa extends far beyond the truncated nuclear family of the Western world. Cousins several times removed are called brother or sister; distant in-laws are aunt or uncle.

Dowden is honest about the negative effects of this communalism (and those who comment on the article are even more negative):

Distant family members can call on you for money. They will turn up unannounced and expect to receive hospitality. You cannot refuse. When rich men die, their fortune is pulled to pieces and squandered by the many people who can claim a gift from the departing relative. And in most families there is a delinquent who has broken the rules or is disliked. They — and their offspring — are excluded or tolerated, but exploited. These days, when labour is becoming more expensive, the traditional practice of taking the child of a poor relative into one’s family to help them has led to exploitation. Where the child is a girl it has even ended in a relationship of slavery and rape.

Communalism can also make societies deeply conservative. Where maintaining the community is the ultimate goal, important but divisive truths cannot be discussed for fear of creating a rift, so decisions are left untaken. And the African family ensures there is no such thing as a self-made man: the classic rootless entrepreneur of 19th-century Europe or America who tears up the rule book and builds a new world.

What interests me most are his more philosophical reflections on what it means to be human:

Descartes wrote: cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. The African would say: cognatus sum ergo sum; I am related, therefore I am. There are two sayings from southern Africa that make the point: “A man is a man because of others” and “Life is when you are together, alone you are an animal”. John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian, puts it like this: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” These sayings are easily applicable to all Africa.

In southern Africa, the concept is called ubuntu: you are who you are through others. This does not just mean family or group. Ubuntu extends to all humanity, shared personhood and values. In the past, the worst punishment in many African societies was expulsion. To be excluded was worse than death.

I think the overarching question is this: Is it possible both to belong and to be free?

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Gaby Hinsliff writes about her decision to resign as political editor of the Observer in order to spend more time with her two-year-old son. It’s a long, soul searching article about the inner conflicts experienced by her and other mothers as they try to juggle full-time work with parenting and family life:

For two crazed but fantastic years, I did – in that loaded cliche – have it all: terrific job, plus small child. Thanks largely to a brilliant nanny and a hands-on partner, I don’t honestly believe either suffered from the other. But what got lost in the rush was a life, if a life means having time for the people you love, engaging with the world around you, making a home rather than just running a household.

Launch of our new Capabilities Programme by Demos.

What makes the article so poignant (and painful) is that she’s not a strident campaigner for stay-at-home motherhood. The realisation that something needed to change came very slowly:

Surrender steals up on the working mother like hypothermia takes a stranded climber: the chill deepens day by day, disorientation sets in, and before you know it you are gone. In the sleepless blur of the last three years, I can barely even remember now how it started.

But perhaps it was back this spring, when I took my son to be measured for new shoes: the woman asked what size he took, and to my embarrassment I couldn’t remember. I felt like an imposter. Or perhaps it was the summer morning when our nanny had to peel my howling son off me: he had a fever and wanted his mother, but I had a cabinet minister to interview. I shot out of the door, hot with shame.

What surprised her, and surprises me, was the evidence (both anecdotal and statistical) of how many working mothers feel the same:

But I never expected the emotional outpouring that followed. “Wish I had the guts to do the same,” texted a junior minister, when I announced my resignation. A seemingly unflappable PR confessed secretly agonising over “not being the kind of mother my son deserves”: a colleague whose slick work-life balance I had always envied admitted she was “at the end of my tether”, dying to quit.

Confessions tumbled compulsively from people I barely knew: tales of stricken marriages, miscarriages, only children who were meant to have siblings but then a career got in the way. “Too many of us once had relationships that we haven’t got now because of this job,” said a veteran male reporter, now divorced.

“I can’t afford regrets,” mused a cabinet minister, “because I’ve had this fantastic career, but…” Politics had, he said, dominated his children’s lives.

Not everyone sympathised. “Fine if your husband can afford to keep you,” sniffed a Tory frontbencher. But the shock was how widespread the fantasy of leaving work, even among parents in gripping careers, seemed to be.

Survey after survey suggests a deep-seated, buried misery over the eternal battle between work and family. Half of working mothers with children under 15 would stay at home full-time in an ideal world, according to a 2001 survey for the then Department for Education. Eight years on, this month’s She magazine reports nearly three-quarters of its readers want to cut their hours: the journalist Cristina Odone’s recent think-tank pamphlet, What Women Want, claimed if money were no object only 12% of mothers would work full-time.

I don’t know what conclusions to draw. Perhaps, simply, that as a society we should do all we can to help those mothers who do hope to spend more time with their children to fulfil that hope. This would not, then, be a reactionary campaign to force mothers back into the kitchen; it would be a libertarian call to help individuals achieve their goals in whatever way seemed best to them – including, if this were the case, to have more time for their children.

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Pushy parents magazine by paulmorriss.

Marianne Kavanagh writes about the perils of modern parenting, and the particular pressure there is on parents today to obsess about whether they are making the correct choices as they bring their children up. The art of muddling through has been replaced by the science of seeking perfection.

Should you let your eight year-old out to play, risking abduction and getting run over, or should you keep him safely at home and worry instead about square eyes and obesity? Should you rush your daughter from violin to ballet, exposing her to a wealth of opportunity, or should you stop being so pushy and let her daydream?

Breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, staying at home versus going out to work – there’s argument and counter-argument and a feeling that you’re going around in circles. “The only thing you know for certain,” says one mother gloomily, “is that whatever you’re doing is wrong.”

There is a wonderful photo with the original article [not the photo now on the Telegraph web article] of an innocent toddler crouching beside a huge pile of parenting books. She is reaching for a book entitled What every parent needs to know, with the suggestion that she wants to invert the roles and educate her parents in the knowledge they need to bring her up well. But the real message is that she is about to be crushed under the weight of books when the tottering pile falls over. 

Where has all this anxiety come from? “I always clean the lavatory before the health visitor comes,” says my friend Jane, “in case she thinks we’re slovenly.” We compare ourselves to other parents and find ourselves wanting. We see pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and really, really hope that they too feed their children rubbish food. We panic in case our actions harm our children for life – “I hate football,” says the father of three small boys, “but I have to pretend I like it in case I’m being a pathetic role model” – and spend all our time worrying about additives, knife crime and omega 3. As Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the university of Kent, points out in his book Paranoid Parenting (Continuum, £10.99), we seem to have lost our nerve completely.

Maybe it is a big, bad world out there. But you have to wonder why our anxiety has reached such mammoth proportions. Perhaps it’s because we tend to have our children later in life these days – since 2004, women in Britain have been more likely to have babies in their thirties than their twenties – and so treat child-rearing like a job, with targets, multiskilling and 360-degree reviews. Or perhaps, with the pressure for both parents to work long hours, we’ve lost the art of muddling through. You could argue, after all, that routinely spending all your waking hours with a three year-old induces the kind of benign boredom that knocks anxiety on the head. Others believe that our growing insecurity comes from isolation. Few of us these days have aunts, cousins and grandmothers living nearby.

It doesn’t mean all the advice is unwelcome or unhelpful. I know parents who have found real wisdom in some of these books. But it makes you wish that all parents had the human support of friends and family to say to them: “You are doing OK! More than that – what you are doing is amazing!”

I remember a talk when I was studying at seminary about all the psychological problems that you can inherit from your parents. But at the end the speaker said: “But don’t worry. Most of our parents did good enough. And good enough is pretty good”.

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I’ve just finished the novel Home by Marilynne Robinson. It’s about the simplest of relationships – being a son, a daughter, a father – and all the heartbreaking complexities that arise within them. It’s about not understanding someone, and still loving them. It’s about not understanding oneself.

I nearly gave up halfway. The atmosphere of sadness almost overwhelmed me. And it’s so slow, clocking the hours as Jack Boughton tries to connect with his family after a twenty year absence. But this is the point. That in the monotony of domestic life, as people circle round each other – wary, uncertain – the small moments of tenderness and self-revelation are startling.

Grace is almost tangible. A natural grace that dignifies even those human hearts that seem most broken. And by the end, without any tidy resolutions, it makes you believe that hope is possible even when there is no sense of how that hope might be fulfilled.

I can’t recommend this novel, together with Robinson’s Gilead, highly enough.

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New Security Measures by andreaweckerle.Every week or two in London you come across a band of bright young things in matching T-shirts, usually clustered round a van or a portable kiosk, giving out freebies. I tend to arc around them full of suspicion, wondering what the catch is. Do I have to sign something? Or take part in a poll? It’s usually a health bar or an energy drink. My most recent catch (I think it was at Victoria Station) was a mini-deodorant. This was one of the few times I’ve hovered around innocently in order to get a second gift – I was so delighted to get my hands on a spray-can small enough to take through airport security in the hand-luggage.

Free gifts. With no strings attached.

I went to a talk about the sacraments yesterday by Dr Clare Watkins, and halfway through she spent five minutes going through a Latin dictionary. Pretty boring, you might think. The reason, however, was to show that in Latin there is a single word, munus, that can mean both “gift/present” and “responsibility/duty”. One word; both meanings. She went on to explain that every gift we receive brings with it a call to responsibility. She said we should reflect more on the gifts that God has given us, and the gifts that others share with us, and see whether we are aware of the huge responsibilities that go with them.

I don’t think this means, in a cynical way, that every gift is really a bribe in disguise. Not at all. And in fact the duty to respond in some way, to appreciate and honour the gift in some way, is not about paying something back to the one who gave it. When a gift is freely given, out of a pure love and an unfeigned generosity – it’s exactly then that we realise how unworthy we are to receive anything at all, and how privileged we are to be able to put that gift at the service of others.

Free Hugs by an untrained eye.

This is even more true when the gift is the gift of oneself – when I give myself to another in friendship or love, in marriage or family life. Then, if the gift is freely given (“without reservation” as the marriage vows go), the sense of responsibility is of another order. It’s not about obligation or paying back a debt; it’s the sheer wonder of standing before another human being, unguarded, knowing that they have given their own heart, and the desire to care for them as much as one cares for oneself.

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