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Fr Philip Miller has an article about Faith and Science in this month’s edition of the Pastoral Review, going over some of the basic history, theology and scientific theory.

Einstein's blackboard

Einstein’s blackboard

In the section on cosmology he writes about the anthropic principle: the way the universe is tuned in such a precise way as to allow the possibility of human life. I’m not sure about this. I’m not saying it’s untrue, I just haven’t done enough to think through whether I find the argument convincing or not.

What speaks to me more is the simple argument from order: that an ordered universe requires some transcendent foundation for its own order (i.e., outside space and time); and that scientific explanation presupposes that the universe can, at least in theory, be explained, and it therefore assumes that the ultimate explanation for the universe has a foundation which is outside the universe itself (at the metaphysical level – that the universe cannot contain the foundation of its own laws; and at the epistemological level – that science cannot justify the foundations of its own scientific principles).

This is how Fr Philip puts it:

The fundamental question remains, for a multiverse just as for a single universe: what is the underlying, unifying cause? The answer is that there must be a necessary being, that is, some sort of ‘God.’ Universes, being complex, law-governed entities, are not simple, and so cannot be metaphysically necessary (since ‘something’ must cause/explain the underlying unity of the complex whole).

Some of Professor Stephen Hawking’s work has been on the nature of the Big Bang, the proposed initial moment of the universe. Some of his more recent hypotheses have been to provide solutions to the complex physics of the early universe that avoid any suggestion that the Big Bang is, in effect, a creation ex nihilo. Hawking’s collaborator, physicist Neil Turok, developed the idea of the ‘instanton’ model of the Big Bang, which has, in simple terms, ‘no beginning.’ And yet, it is highly instructive to note Turok’s own words about their modelling of the universe’s initial expansion phase, termed ‘inflation’:

“Think of inflation as being the dynamite that produced the Big Bang. Our instanton is a sort of self-lighting fuse that ignites inflation. To have our ‘instanton’ you have to have gravity, matter, space and time. Take any one ingredient away and the ‘instanton’ doesn’t exist. But if you have an ‘instanton’ it will instantly turn into an inflating infinite universe.” [Turok, N., commenting online on his own work]

In other words, even in their attempt to define a universe with no beginning, they still have to assume that there is a pre-existing framework of physical laws just sitting there, which the material universe must obey. The universe clearly doesn’t invent its own laws: it requires a law-giver, and that law-giver has to be outside the universe of matter, space and time; it must be spirit, God Himself.

Which raises the child’s question, ‘But who made God?’ To which the answer is: God is not the kind of thing that needs to be made. Or, to put it in the positive: God is precisely that one ‘thing’ that is not made by another thing; God is eternal (outside time), spirit (outside space and matter), simple (outside the complexity of secondary explanations), and necessary (outside the chain of secondary causes).

What do you think?

You can read the full article here.

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[Yesterday's sermon!]

fear graffiti by By Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bridges and Tangents is on the shortlist for the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ (!!) at the Christian New Media Awards.

Why not take a look at the other nominees in the various categories below. I know that many of the readers of this blog are Catholic, so it might interest people to see the fascinating things that go on in the largely non-Catholic (I think) new media world represented by these awards.

People’s Choice

- Free Bible Images
- The Light Project
- Christian Medical Comment
- Busbridge and Hambledon Church
- CSW – Take Action

Best Christian Blog

- Emma Scrivener
- Missing Generation
- Threads
- What You Think Matters
- God and Politics in the UK
- EpilogueTV

Best Christian Blog by someone under 25

- Dean Roberts
- Miriam’s Fusion Blog
- Blogging with Tom
- Arianne Winslow
- Becca is Learning

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

- benleney
- Learning and Growing
- Biblical Preaching
- Bridges and Tangents
- Rev’d Matthew Porter

Best Newcomer Blog

- Flame Creative Children’s Ministry
- Believer’s Brain
- Ed’s Slipper
- Blogging with Tom
- God and Politics in the UK

Micro-Blogger of the Year

- OneVoice
- Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove
- Restored
- Richard Littledale
- The Church Mouse

Best Christian Organisation Website

- Sunday Night Live
- Wazala
- SGM Lifewords
- Relationship Central
- Green Pastures Housing

I hope to go to the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards on 20 Oct 2012, and try to do some serious (and fun) thinking about faith and the new media. It looks as though it will be a good day. Details copied here:

The Christian New Media Conference 2012

Date: 20th October 2012
Time: 9.15am Registration, 10am Start and 5.20pm Finish
Venue: King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Stamford Street, London SE1 8WA Directions
Tickets:   £30   Book Now!

If you want to make a greater impact in the digital world, to get to grips with new media technologies, or simply tweet, pin and post better, then the Christian New Media Conference 2012 is the place to be. It will inspire you, equip you and connect you with like-minded people – whatever your level of experience.

Now in its third year, the conference has moved to a new venue with more space, four new seminar streams and 25 expert speakers ready to give practical help and an opportunity to delve deeper.

Whether you come as an individual, a church, charity or business, you’ll be spoilt for choice with 20 breakout sessions available.

The Theme for 2012

The digital revolution has transformed the art of story-telling, bringing it once more to the fore. If you think about it, much of what we are engaged with online is story-telling. We might be telling our story, our church or organisation’s story – but ultimately, as Christians, we are telling God’s story. This will be the theme of the main sessions this year and will have a dedicated seminar stream.

This year’s Theology stream will look at the concept of ‘Depixelating God’ – exploring how we as Christians can help make the image of God clearer to people in the online space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bruno Forte, Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto in Italy, gave a talk to the clergy of Westminster Diocese last week about the New Evangelisation. He gave a nice explanation of the meaning of beauty, which is whatever allows us ‘to see the whole in fragments’; it may not be original, but I hadn’t heard it before.

He put this in the context of post-modern culture, where there is such a suspicion of grand narratives, ideologies, and large claims about truth; so the only possibility of helping people to glimpse and then grasp the truth is through fragments – but fragments that eventually allow one to take hold of a greater truth. ‘Witness’ would be another important notion here: we can’t always convince others by argument, but we can still witness to something bigger than ourselves, to a more luminous beauty hidden within the ordinariness of this particular encounter. This is true for all truth, not just religious truth.

Here are a few paragraphs from his talk, which you can read in full here.

The “post-modern” side of this crisis turns into a denial of any ideological standpoint as totalitarian and violent. Typically, ideologies forces the post-modern man to live on fragments: as a period of contamination (everything is contaminated, nothing is worthy) and fruition (it is better to live intensely, enjoying pleasures), the post-modern era turns out to be an era of frustration, a long good-bye to any sense of security (Gianni Vattimo).

Religion is also compared with ideologies, and, therefore, is rejected because of its prejudices. It becomes necessary, then, to clarify the character of the God of Christian faith as totally unlike the totalitarian violence of ideological reason: a God who decided to choose the abandonment of the Cross to show the world the depth of his endless love. Moreover, the denial of the possibility of universal outlook pushes many post-modern people to withdraw into themselves. A return to this kind of produces in fact a “crowd of loners”. The force of Christian charity must be commended as a remedy for loneliness and as a way of creating points of contact and solidarity with others.

Christianity sees the whole in fragments as when the Son who had been abandoned on the Cross is then resurrected to new life. Seeing “the whole in a fragment” can be considered another name for “beauty”. It is important, therefore, in the post-modern era that Christianity show itself as the disclosure of a humble, yet saving beauty—in the most beautiful realisation of our humanity, in the resurrection of the Crucified.

The cultural movements referred to produce ethical consequences. The scattered islands created by the post-modern fragmentation turns others into “moral strangers” whom we must be wary of. This defines the so-called “liquid modernity”, which has been often described by the British sociologist and philosopher of Jewish-Polish origins, Zygmunt Bauman. Nowadays, there are no “given” nor “axiomatic” models and patterns: there are simply too many conflicting instances so that all of them end by losing their force authority. Since there are no absolute points of reference, everything can be justified in terms of the current fashion. Ethical standards, given to the Western World through the Bible, now appear weakened, concealed and hardly evident.

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Yesterday on Radio 4′s Something Understood Mark Tully looked into seminary life, past and present. John Cornwell reflects on his experience in ‘junior seminary’ many years ago, and I try to explain what things are like today at Allen Hall. You can listen here – the programme is available online until Sunday 17th June.

St Joseph’s College, Upholland, where John Cornwell went to ‘junior seminary’

Here is the blurb:

In Something Understood this week, Mark Tully is intrigued by life in a Roman Catholic seminary. How are young men trained for the priesthood?

At Allen Hall Seminary in the busy heart of London, Dean of Studies and Formation Advisor Father Stephen Wang explains the need for his students to train for their pastoral role within the Catholic community. Seminarians at Allen Hall spend much of their time in local parishes, schools and hospitals preparing for life as a Diocesan priest. And yet it’s also crucial that they have the quiet, contemplative space they need to develop spiritually. They must become men of God and men of communion.

Mark explores the history of the seminary system, with readings from Anthony Kenny and Denis Meadows, and hears music written by ancient monks in isolation. He speaks to writer and academic John Cornwell, whose own time at Upholland Seminary in the 1950s left a strong imprint on his spiritual life. The Junior Seminary system he experienced from the age of 12 no longer exists, but John believes that there are still serious flaws in the way the Catholic Church trains its priests. He argues that seminarians are too separated out from the world and from the people they are destined to serve once ordained.

Ultimately, becoming a priest requires huge dedication – what Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe described as a ‘falling in love’ with God. Perhaps what is also needed is a balance, between the prosaic and the spiritual, between being within the world and being apart from it.

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I’m staggered by Keith Ward’s suggestion in a recent article that the Church of England should ‘modify it’s traditional basis’ so that ‘it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts’. His vision for the Church of England has hardly any room for revelation, truth, authority, scripture or the supernatural.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

The Christian community becomes a place where people can express themselves, their aspirations, their questions, their explorations, and their tentative answers; Jesus hardly gets a mention; and even when Ward proposes, as an alternative to ‘the acceptance of some formal creed’, a basic commitment to ‘an objective morality, and loyalty to a God believed to be revealed in and through Jesus’, he qualifies this by stating that ‘many interpretations of that revelation’ will be possible.

It’s a fairly hollow version of Christianity. Or, to be less judgemental and more theological, it’s a presentation of Anglicanism in this country as a purely natural religion, a holding place for all our human religious and quasi-religious longings and instincts, but nothing more.

You probably think I’m exaggerating, but just read a few paragraphs here:

The opportunity for the C of E today is so to modify its traditional basis that it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts.

The Protestant heritage can best be expressed today as the encouragement of freedom of thought and rational criticism of all authority. The church should raise the big questions about human meaning, purpose and value, and encourage their exploration, without pretending it has the final answers.

The national basis of the church must today take fully into account the diversity of modern England, and aim to be fully inclusive — open to all without exception, but not seeking to decry alternative options of thought and belief where they are conducive to human well-being. It will never be, and never has been, the church of all English people. But it can be a national church, in expressing the moral and spiritual ideals of our society and aiming to promote compassion and spirituality throughout society.

Establishment in its present form may not remain. But the church can continue to reflect and help to shape the moral and spiritual values upon which our society at its best is founded — freedom, democracy, justice, a concern for the flourishing of all persons, and a concern for the weak and disadvantaged. All religious and humanist groups can co-operate in this, but it is beneficial to have a national institution formally committed to promoting those values.

This requires a liberal and humane approach to the Christian faith, a commitment which is not narrowly restrictive and doctrinally inflexible, but which preserves a distinctive vision of God as morally demanding, unrestrictedly loving and personally enabling. That vision is seen in many different ways in the person of Jesus and the inner power of the Spirit which filled his life and is present in human hearts. There is no thought here that God is not seen in other ways, too. But this is a way that should attract by a desire to love the good for its own sake, not by a fear of punishment by a basically vindictive God.

Many — I hope, most — Anglicans in England already believe this. But there can be a certain timidity about making senior appointments in the church which, afraid of the anger of those who want a much more exclusive and doctrinally divisive church, and who seem obsessed with gender and sexuality, will opt for a safe and therefore insipid archbishop. What the Church of England needs is an uncompromisingly liberal archbishop, who can lead a Protestant (which must now mean critical and questioning), national (which must now mean inclusive and tolerant) and established (which must now mean committed to the promotion of broad humane and spiritual values) church in an age of rapid scientific advance and moral change.

There is a mistrust of certainty that makes it impossible to believe or propose anything as being true, and Ward states this quite clearly:

[This new Church of England] would have to stop any ordained ministers from pretending that they alone are ‘true’ Christians, and get them to accept, as a condition of ordination, that they are part of one inclusive church with many diverse interpretations of Scripture and tradition, none of them certain and unchangeable.

Has this version of Anglicanism got legs?

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I can’t say I have read many graphic novels, but this is an extraordinary book. It tells the tale, as you would expect from the title, of Simone Lia’s search for a husband, and her struggle to understand God’s plan for her life. It’s Cosmopolitan meets St John of the Cross via Snoopy and the Far Side. The cartoon-like illustrations are endearing, funny, and often beautiful. Her emotional honesty is sometimes heartbreaking. But you have the sense of listening in on the inner dialogue of a soul – one that is innocent, wounded, brave and slightly quirky – rather than intruding or being the recipient of a clunky disclosure.

There is a moment of grace and enlightenment near the end of the book (I’m not spoiling any plot) that is both profoundly moving and presents a spiritual insight that is worthy of the contemplative masters, and that I don’t think could have been communicated so effectively in any other medium. It takes a lot for me to say that, as a cinema fanatic; but perhaps there is something in this graphic novel thing.

You can buy it here on Amazon.

I’m delighted that Simone has done the illustrations for the parents booklet I have been working on with Ten Ten Theatre. I’ll post about that when it is published in the next couple of weeks.

Just in case you think I am only writing this because I’ve got a vested interest in promoting Simone, or in promoting any artist/author who is bringing Christianity into the mainstream, here are some paragraphs from Rachel Cooke’s review in the Guardian:

Lia is a Catholic – a devout one: the kind who goes to confession and has nuns for friends – and when she asks God to find her a husband, she really means it. Standing in the middle of Leicester Square, having recently been dumped by email, she looks up at the sky and says: “To cut to the chase, God, I’m going to be 34 in two weeks’ time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” Does he reply? Not exactly. But she experiences, as people sometimes do, a kind of epiphany. She decides to go on an adventure with God.

How Lia pulls off what happens next without ever seeming a) repulsively pious or b) stark staring mad, I do not know. It’s partly her tone, which is inquiring and funny, but never hectoring; and partly it’s her drawings, so heart-stoppingly neat and expressive. Mostly, though, I think it’s down to the disarming feeling that creeps over you as her sincerity (not such a rare thing in comics as in some other realms, but still pretty rare these days) quietly hits home. Lia is a knowing artist – flirting with a riding instructor in the Australian outback, her self-portrait transmutes into a luscious drawing of Penélope Cruz – but she has a vulnerable innocence that puts you firmly on her side.

And what of her “adventure”? Well, she spends a fortnight in a nunnery, where she takes comfort in routine and quiet, and then she takes a trip to Oz in search of a hermit and a hunk (naturally, she tells her nun advisers only of her desire to find the former). Nothing dramatic happens, though she does get to play Operation – yes, I do mean the battery-operated game – with Jesus (and even the son of God, it seems, struggles when it comes to extracting the tricky spare rib). I must not reveal, here, whether her travels result in the bagging of a husband. But I will say that this is a brave and beautiful book, and Lia is lucky to have a publisher who, though he must secretly have longed for another volume of Fluffy (her 2007 hit about a talking bunny and the neurotic man it takes for its father), has allowed her so intimately to follow her heart.

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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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Geothermal map of the Netherlands!

Many Dutch Christians are letting go of traditional beliefs, but holding onto the idea that there is ‘something’ out there, something just above the surface of reality, something more. Robert Pigott explains:

Professor Hijme Stoffels of the VU University Amsterdam says it is in such concepts as love that people base their diffuse ideas of religion.

“In our society it’s called ‘somethingism’,” he says. “There must be ‘something’ between heaven and earth, but to call it ‘God’, and even ‘a personal God’, for the majority of Dutch is a bridge too far.

“Christian churches are in a market situation. They can offer their ideas to a majority of the population which is interested in spirituality or some kind of religion.”

To compete in this market of ideas, some Christian groups seem ready virtually to reinvent Christianity.

They want the Netherlands to be a laboratory for Christianity, experimenting with radical new ways of understanding the faith.

Much of this is led by the Dutch clergy, many of whom are professed agnostics or atheists.

The Rev Klaas Hendrikse can offer his congregation little hope of life after death, and he’s not the sort of man to sugar the pill.

An imposing figure in black robes and white clerical collar, Mr Hendrikse presides over the Sunday service at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland.

It is part of the mainstream Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse’s sermon seems bleak – “Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get”.

“Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death,” Mr Hendrikse says. “No, for me our life, our task, is before death.”

Nor does Klaas Hendrikse believe that God exists at all as a supernatural thing.

“When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that’s where it can happen. God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.”

Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.

A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.

None of this is new. When I was studying theology as an undergraduate in the 1980s (before going to seminary) various versions of this ‘agnostic Christianity’ were on offer. I wonder whether the attraction this kind of worldview is rising or declining in our present culture in Britain.

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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes - which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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Holy Week raised more questions for me than it answered – about Jesus, about faith, about the Resurrection. So I spent much of Easter week reading Gerald O’Collins’s Jesus: A Portrait. It looks at Jesus as he is presented in the Scriptures, and connects this portrait with the tradition and teaching of the Church. It’s a beautiful way into the mystery of the person of Christ; and the first chapter, in fact, is entitled ‘The Beauty of Jesus’ – a wonderful way to start a book on Christology.

One of the passages in chapter 12 is called ‘Jesus the questioner’. O’Collins points out how Jesus, even though he gives many answers, often spends a lot of time asking questions. This connects with the pattern of God putting questions to people throughout the Old Testament. Part of the revelation of God is not just providing information but prompting us to face questions that might otherwise have gone unasked.

Some of the simplest questions are the most profound.

In the Book of Genesis God soon confronts Adam with a question: ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). Right through the Old Testament, God continues to challenge people with utterly basic questions: ‘What have you been doing?’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ In the face of Job’s complaints about his unmerited sufferings, the divine Questioner does not offer explanations, but speaks out of a whirlwind: ‘I will question you’ (Job 38:3).

It comes then as no surprise that in John’s Gospel, with its clear statement of the divinity of Jesus, his very first words are a question: ‘What are you looking for?’ (John 1:38). The divine Questioner has become flesh to dwell among us. His opening words take the shape of a terribly simple but profound question: ‘What are you looking for?’ The God who says to Adam, ‘Where are you?’, and to Job, ‘I will question you’, has come among us and slips at once into the divine habit of asking questions.

John’s Gospel invites its readers to let themselves be drawn into the beloved disciple’s experience by noting and mulling over such questions of Jesus as: ‘What are you looking for?’ (1:38), ‘Will you also go away?’ (6:67), ‘Do you believe this?’ (11:26), ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ (13:12), ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?’ (14:9), ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ (20:15), and through to the awesomely direct question ‘Do you love me?’ (21:15-17) [pp. 202-203].

What a powerful set of questions!

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Why should we keep the Sabbath? I know, because it’s there in the Bible; and it’s not just a throwaway line, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. But what is the reason given there for keeping the Sabbath?

It hadn’t struck me until morning meditation in the chapel yesterday that the two accounts of the giving of the Decalogue in the Old Testament offer two quite different explanations of why we should keep the Sabbath.

First, in the book of Exodus (Ch. 20), it’s about God and creation:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. [But why?] For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Then, in the book of Deuteronomy (Ch. 5), it’s about the Jewish people and their liberation from slavery in Egypt:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. [But why?] Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So there are two different but complimentary meanings presented here. First, the day of rest tells us something about the nature of God himself. He is not just the creator, busying himself with his activity on behalf of the world – represented by the Six Days of Creation. He is not just defined in terms of his relationship with creation in general, or with us human beings in particular. He is also a God of rest, who exists in himself, and – as it were –  for himself. His being, his self-sufficiency, comes ‘before’ his activity; and in the creation story his being, his resting, is the climax and fulfilment of that activity – although in God himself ‘being’ and ‘activity’ are all one, because there is a fundamental simplicity at the heart of everything that God is and does.

So the Sabbath, the day of rest, builds into the very rhythm of our week, and so into the structure of our very existence, a proper understanding of God. It shows us that his nature, and our ultimate destiny as sharing in that nature, is something completely beyond time, beyond temporal activity, beyond all the striving that we associate with a purposeful life.

But second, the day of rest, as presented in Deuteronomy, tells us something about our own nature as human beings – in so far as the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt points to a more universal truth about the human condition. In this context, the Sabbath is a reminder that whatever freedom we have now is actually a gift – whether this freedom is social, political, moral, spiritual, religious, etc. We are free because God’s goodness, his mighty hand and outstretched arm, have given us this freedom – by creating us in the first place, and then by stepping into history to renew it. And it is our duty not just to remember this with thanksgiving, but also to use that freedom for good, and in a way that ultimately leads us back to the God who called us into freedom into the first place.

So the Sabbath ‘forces’ us to remember that we don’t belong to ourselves or completely determine the meaning of our own lives. Our life is given. Our freedom, to the extent that we can discover and live it, is given. That weekly moment of rest and letting go is in one sense a restriction, because we can’t do everything we would like to do; but in another sense it is the very foundation of all our activity and striving, because it helps us remember that this freedom is not something we can create for ourselves. There are many ways of making the Sabbath holy, but the primary meaning of the Sabbath lies in ‘consecrating’ the whole day, in setting it apart from the rest of the week.

Of course there are many other meanings to the Sabbath, many other ways in which it must be kept holy; and for Christians it is given a radical new meaning in the light of the Resurrection. These thoughts arise just from reflecting on the explanations given in the Decalogue. The Sabbath is about God and about us as human beings. It’s both a theology and an anthropology. We lay hold of all this simply by the discipline of letting go – as far as possible – of work and shopping for one day a week…

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There is a long interview in last week’s Observer with Woody Allen by Carole Cadwalladr. The reviews of his latest film are so bad that I don’t think I’ll bother seeing it (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). [Warning: Minor plot spoilers follow]


One of the themes that comes up in the interview, yet again, is Allen’s atheism. I’ve always admired his honesty, and the way he won’t sidestep the starkness implicit in a Godless universe, he won’t offer any facile consolations. Here are his latest reflections, framed by Cadwalladr’s comments:

They are all here [in the film], the familiar subjects of Allen-esque despair. The feeling, as Alvy Singer explains at the beginning of Annie Hall, that life is nasty, brutish and cruel. But also too short. That death dominates life. And that nothing works out, ever. It’s not a film a young man could have made. “No. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I was young. It requires years of disillusionment, this is true,” he says. The only happy characters in the film are the deluded ones, and the more powerfully deluded they are, the happier they seem. Helena, who takes up with a fortune teller and dabbles with the occult, is grinning like a loon by the end of the film.

“But then I’ve always felt that if the delusion works, it’s great. I always think that people who have religious faith are always happier than people who do not. The problem is that it’s not something you can adopt. It has to come naturally.”

There’s a brilliant sequence, which afterwards I think is the possibly the least romantic moment in any film ever, in which Sally, played by Naomi Watts, young, beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage, has a moment with her sexy, Spanish boss, Antonio Banderas. He obviously has feelings for her, as she does for him, and if she were a character in any other film, they’d eventually be together. Or maybe apart, but in a doomed, romantic way. Not here, though. It just doesn’t happen, and they end up not together in the most banal of ways: the timing’s off. She hesitates, and he falls in love with her friend instead. She takes consolation in her career but then that’s thwarted too. It’s a level of realism, the everyday realism of everyday life, that rarely reaches the screen.

In Woody Allen’s universe there is no reason why some things happen and others not. His atheism allows no delusions of that kind, but what about age, I ask him? Do you, like Alfie, resist hearing that you’re old?

“I do, I resist. I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They’re tricks that I’ve done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it’s foolish. But you’re creating them because they’re not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can’t be solved, and they’re a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.”

“Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think ‘I make my luck’. And you want to keep telling yourself that you’re in control, but you’re not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy’s bus.”

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It was interesting to note that two megastars from the secular worlds of football and film/TV – Carlo Ancelotti and Martin Sheen – were both happy to talk about their Christian faith in public in London last week. I don’t think it was a coordinated plan of evangelisation, but it might be a small sign that it’s becoming slightly more acceptable to ‘do God’ in public these days.

Martin Sheen playing President Bartlet in The West Wing

First, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, gave this interview with Simon Johnson in the Evening Standard:

Still, at times like these one wonders how the 51-year-old continues to cope living under such intense scrutiny.

Some cynics will look at his £6million-a-year salary as motivation enough, yet the Italian has found greater comfort in his religious beliefs rather than his bank balance.

“I am a Catholic, like 99 per cent of people from Italy, and I think my faith has helped keep me strong,” he tells me. “Sometimes religion helps you. I don’t have time to go to church but I pray every day.

“I get comfort from praying. Obviously I don’t pray because I want Chelsea to win. This is not the reason to pray. I think God has to think to other things in this world, not Chelsea.

“Religion has been in my life since I was a boy and my parents would always take me to church.

“Also at school there were some hours spent every week to teach the children to understand religion and the Bible.

“But my strength also comes from the experience I have had in my career. I know that things can’t be okay every time and sometimes you have to work through the difficulties.”

And Martin Sheen, star of Apocalypse Now and The West Wing, was in London to promote his new film The Way. He speaks here about his concern for his son Charlie Sheen:

The West Wing star said the actor, who has fought a well-documented battle with drugs and checked into rehab last month, had the backing of his family.

When asked how he was supporting his son, Sheen replied: “With prayer. We lift him up and we ask everyone who cares about him to lift him up, and lift up all those who are in the grip of drug and alcohol abuse, because they are looking for transcendence.”

Speaking at the UK premiere of his new pilgrimage film The Way at London’s British Film Institute, the 70-year-old – who acted alongside Charlie in the 1987 film Wall Street – said he would be happy to work with him in the future.

“That would be another miracle and we’d look forward to it, very much so,” he said.

In the film – directed by another of his three sons Emilio Estevez – Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who embarks on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago walk to collect the remains of his dead son.

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After yesterday’s slightly mystical post about a new sun rising on the eastern horizon each morning, quite by chance I happened to start reading Augustine’s Confessions later in the evening.

St Augustine writing one of his works

And in Book 1, Chapter 6, I came across this remarkable passage about the relationship between time and eternity; between the succession of created days and God’s ever-present Day:

For thou art infinite and in thee there is no change, nor an end to this present day – although there is a sense in which it ends in thee since all things are in thee and there would be no such thing as days passing away unless thou didst sustain them.

And since “thy years shall have no end,” thy years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers’ days have passed through this thy day and have received from it what measure and fashion of being they had? And all the days to come shall so receive and so pass away.

“But thou art the same”! And all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, thou wilt gather into this thy day.

What is it to me if someone does not understand this? Let him still rejoice and continue to ask, “What is this?” Let him also rejoice and prefer to seek thee, even if he fails to find an answer, rather than to seek an answer and not find thee! 

This is a translation by Albert C. Outler, available online. My own version is by J. G. Pilkington, in a beautiful edition published by The Folio Society, and given to me by a dear friend for the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I’d seen these Folio editions in second-hand bookshops, but never in my life had I dreamed of ever possessing one!

It’s not just the box or the binding; every page is a work of art. The font (Palatino), the paper, the illustrations. We were arguing over lunch about whether iPads and Kindles will soon replace books. Now I have an answer: “Not if every book were the quality of these Folio books”.

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After spending the whole of yesterday at Westminster, seeing the Popemobile drive past the excited crowds, and later on managing to see him emerge from Westminster Abbey, it’s hard not to blog about the Papal Visit.

The speeches of the last two days have been really powerful. (You can read them all here.) All the headlines have been about how the Pope has been attacking the ‘aggressive secularism’ that is sweeping through Britain. But this misses the main point, which is how Pope Benedict’s first thought has been to praise British history and British values. It’s not flattery; it’s genuine, heartfelt appreciation – for the values and the people who (amongst many other great achievements) created modern democracy, ended the slave trade, and fought valiantly against the Nazis. Britain has emerged as:

a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.

Then come the questions: How are you going to hold onto these values? What has been their foundation in the past? What will serve to secure and sustain these noble values for the future? How will you do this without some sense of an objective moral order, a transcendent meaning, a loving creator, and an ultimate purpose? The hard questions that he does ask, the challenges to ‘aggressive secularism’, only arise because he actually cares for this British culture and worries that it is in danger of undoing itself.

Here are some of my favourite passages from today. The first, about sanctity and the search for happiness, from his address to children this morning at the ‘Big Assembly’:

I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.

Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before. Perhaps some of you think being a saint is not for you. Let me explain what I mean. When we are young, we can usually think of people that we look up to, people we admire, people we want to be like. It could be someone we meet in our daily lives that we hold in great esteem. Or it could be someone famous. We live in a celebrity culture, and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment. My question for you is this: what are the qualities you see in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What kind of person would you really like to be?

When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.

Not only does God love us with a depth and an intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he invites us to respond to that love. You all know what it is like when you meet someone interesting and attractive, and you want to be that person’s friend. You always hope they will find you interesting and attractive, and want to be your friend. God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.

The second passages are from his speech at Westminster Hall:

Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.

As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

And finally, for a bit of fun, for those of you have made it to the bottom of the post, here is me inspecting the Popemobile for CNN.

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Jack's Beanstalk

I forgot to blog about the Kingdom of Ife exhibition at the British Museum, and I’ve just found out that it closes on 4 July. So you have a few days to go.

This is the exhibition that includes those remarkable brass heads from 14th and 15th century West Africa. They are stately and serene, but still highly personal. William Bascom, an American anthropologist who was involved in the finds, wrote: “Little that Italy or Greece or Egypt ever produced could be finer, and the appeal of their beauty is immediate and universal”

Less powerful, but equally interesting, were two terracotta chameleons about 4 inches long, each perched on a stone. Chameleons had a mythical status in Ife culture, and the captions retold the Ife creation myth (I’m summarising):

Olodumare, the supreme god who inhabited the sky, sent the god Orishanla to create the world and humankind. He got drunk on palm wine and fell asleep, so his younger brother Oduduwa took over the job.

Oduduwa climbed down an iron chain that had been hung from the sky to the watery land below. He carried from the sky above a snail-shell full of soil, a five-toed chicken, and a chameleon. He emptied out the soil, and the dry land was formed by the chicken kicking the soil around as he searched for food. The chameleon tested the land to see if it was firm. And then Orishanla (now sober) created human beings, while Oduduwa formed the rest of the living world. Oduduwa is described as the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

I love creation stories. But this one excited me so much because it reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. This beautiful image of the world above being united to our own world by some kind of cord. Either let down from above, like the chain; or grown up from below, like the beanstalk. The Tower of Babel. Jacob’s ladder. The Cross. Human desire stretching up; and God – perhaps – reaching down. Although for Jack the world above the clouds was not particularly heavenly.

It was always one of my favourite children’s stories. And even the comic version done for TV by the Goodies seemed magical to me. I must find a modern children’s book to see how it is being depicted today.

Here is the British Museum plug for the exhibition. It’s well worth catching:

This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of brass, copper, stone and terracotta sculpture from West Africa.

The Kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) was a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa (in what is now modern south-west Nigeria). 

Ife flourished as a political, spiritual, cultural and economic centre in the 12th–15th centuries AD, and was an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.

The exhibition features superb pieces of Ife sculpture, drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper to create a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. The technical sophistication of the casting process is matched by the artworks’ enduring beauty.

The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include images of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity.

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It is wrong to mention religion in public? I’m just skimming through a careers advice book called ‘What Color is your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers’ by Richard Nelson Bolles. (I’m not in a crisis; I just bought it for a friend. Really!) It’s a secular book, aimed at the secular market, recommended to me by a management consultant. It’s obviously one of the leaders in its field (9 million copies sold by the time of my 2008 edition). And here is the final paragraph of the author’s preface:

In closing, I must not fail to mention my profound thanks to The Great Lord God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who all my life has been as real to me as breathing, and Who has been my Rock through every trial, tragedy, and misfortune in my life, including the assassination of my only brother, Don Bolles. I thank God for giving me strength, and carrying me through — everything. I am grateful beyond measure for such a life, and such a mission as ‘He’ has given me: to help people find meaning for their lives. He is the source of whatever grace, wisdom, or compassion I have ever found, or shared with others.

This really took me aback. And it’s my own reactions that I find interesting. I thought, quite spontaneously: This is a bit over the top! Why is he telling me about his faith? Is this really the place for a sermon? Isn’t this going to put people off? Isn’t this a little bit inappropriate?

And then I thought: But why not? Where do I get this idea that ordinary people can’t talk about their everyday faith in the normal circumstances of daily life? Is it because I’m English and my culture has persuaded me to censor my conversation and avoid the topics of religion and politics? Or is it because I have been fooled into thinking that religion is purely a ‘private’ affair and must therefore remain hidden from the gaze of normal society — like an embarrassing secret we share only with intimate friends or our doctor.

Thank You God! by Daniel Y. Go.

Richard Bolles could have thanked anyone else (or anything else) and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. In a standard author’s preface you can honour your parents, your publisher, your agent, your neighbours, your cat, your therapist, your muse, your guru. You can acknowledge the inspiration brought to you by a shower of leaves on an autumn day, or by the inaudible voices of your ancestors. But if you thank God in such a public manner, it makes someone like me feel just slightly uncomfortable. As I said, it’s my own reactions that I am questioning…

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Is religious education a form of brainwashing? Should children be free to make their own decisions about fundamental matters of faith? These questions are provoked by the new poster sponsored by the British Humanist Association. [See it here.] Two gloriously happy children hold their hands in the air as if they are about to do a cartwheel. The main text reads: “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” And floating in the background are the various labels under attack: “Buddhist child. Agnostic child. Protestant child. Humanist child. Catholic child. Atheist child…”

Candelaria religious education 1 + 2 by John Donaghy.

Religious education in Candelaria

I have an article in Timesonline in response to this. I’ll copy most of it below, but put it in quote marks just to acknowledge that it was not written for this blog. I give four reasons why the call to liberate children is superficially appealing but fundamentally naive:

First: The exercise of freedom requires some prior foundation. Children have to learn how to make choices: how to weigh things up, how to judge what is best, how to take responsibility. Any child psychologist knows this. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And an essential part of learning to choose is having some sense of the meaning of the world we inhabit, of the value of our actions, and of the significance of their consequences. In other words, freedom can’t be learnt outside a context of meaning and values.

Religious faith can help establish this context; so can a robust humanism. But to think that freedom can be learnt in a vacuum, without the sharing of any moral or philosophical convictions, is simply naïve. Children who are brought up without inherited values of any kind are actually less able to exercise their freedom and choose for themselves. Just as children who are brought up without boundaries will never be able to learn the significance of crossing them.

Second: If you believe something important to be true, then you shouldn’t pretend it is an open question. This goes for secular humanists as much as for religious believers. If, for example, you are a convinced atheist, and you think that belief in God is false at an intellectual level and damaging through its distorting effects on morality, then of course you would want to share this conviction with your children. It would be unjust to keep it from them. Similarly, if you believe in God, and you believe that this faith is not just a lifestyle choice or a cultural imperative but an objective truth with profound implications for human existence, how could you not share this conviction with your children? Yes, you want to nurture their freedom and you hope they will discover things for themselves. But if it is a question of truth – whether scientific or moral or spiritual – then you will inevitably want to guide your children along a certain path, knowing full well that they may one day choose to veer off in another direction.

Third: It’s a fantasy to imagine that children can be raised in a philosophically neutral environment without some dominant world-view. Theism – as much as atheism, materialism, or secular humanism (these terms are not synonymous) – provides a particular understanding of the meaning of the world and of human life, which will help structure a child’s understanding and values. But if you try to bring your children up in an environment which is indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, then your purported neutrality will already have been lost. If, in effect, you say to your children, “I don’t care enough about these values or convictions to share them with you”, or “they are important to me but not important in themselves”, then you are presenting them with a very particular world-view. In this view, religious questions and all questions of ultimate meaning are relativised, and indifference is taken to be the predominant value.

To say to a child, “I don’t mind – you choose!” is to give the child the strongest possible impression that the available options are all equally significant, which is to say that none is uniquely significant. So this apparently ‘soft’ form of neutrality suggested in the poster is actually a ‘hard’ form of relativism which relegates religious and philosophical questions to the periphery of human interest.

Fourth: A strong notion of autonomy, which is essential to an individual’s freedom, requires an appreciation of one’s human dignity. Children need to know not just that they are loved but that their life has meaning and is valuable in itself. If this is not communicated in some way, then the love of the parents, however profound, will become distorted, because the children will see themselves as valuable to their parents but not valuable as persons in their own right. It doesn’t matter how this innate value is framed (‘human dignity’, ‘the sanctity of life’, etc.) as long as it is articulated somehow.

Human autonomy, rightly cherished by secular humanists, needs some notion of intrinsic human dignity to support it – otherwise it has no foundation and no meaning. So, paradoxically, in order to liberate children from the limited vision of their parents and culture, you have to imbue them with a strong sense of their own worth, of their dignity, of their significance in a framework of meaning. The humanism of the early Enlightenment held on to a strong notion of human dignity and human uniqueness, even as it became more secular. But as secular humanists have become more and more materialist in their outlook, and as materialism has failed to offer any satisfying accounts of human dignity, it has become almost impossible to avoid describing human nature in reductivist terms.

Contemporary secular humanists are largely unable to explain to children why their freedom and autonomy have any significance, why their life has any meaning – and this is why the exaltation of freedom proposed in this poster feels a bit hollow. If you really want your children to be free, you need to tell them why their freedom matters, and help them appreciate some of the values they might pursue. And to do that, you need to use at least a few labels

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The Benediction of Saint Patrick by starbeard.Sunday was the feast of All Saints. I gave a talk about the meaning of devotion to the saints at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in central London. You can listen to it [click OPEN] or download it [click SAVE] from here; and read the handout here.

I spoke about the obvious things: how we learn from their example; how we enjoy their friendship; how we are helped by their prayers. But I added another point: that our dependence on the prayers of the saints teaches us a deeper truth about our identity as human beings [Go to 45:23 in the download].

In the story of the Garden of Eden, there are two tragedies that unfold. One is the Fall, the Original Sin when Eve and then Adam took the forbidden fruit and ate from it. But this depends on the tragedy that comes before: that when Eve is tempted, when she is faced with this moment of monumental crisis, she faces it alone, she doesn’t ask for help or advice or support from God or from her husband. And I don’t mean this in a sexist way as if to say that the woman should have sought help from the man; I mean it in a way that would apply to Adam as much as to Eve. Neither of them was meant to face the serpent alone; and how different it could have been if they had turned to each other and to God. When she looked at the fruit, with the serpent whispering in her ear, and took that decision on her own, it was – perhaps – already too late.

The same is true with Cain and Abel. It’s a difficult passage to interpret, but it reflects the scene between Adam and Eve. Cain is tempted, and struggles with the Lord. But instead of seeking God’s help, or seeking the help of his brother Abel – he kills him. When the Lord asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” – the answer is, “Yes, you should have been”. But even more importantly, he should have allowed Abel to be his keeper when he was facing his own demons; Cain should have turned to his brother, leant on him, and shared his concerns with him.

So part of our salvation, part of our healing, is the restoration of human relationships. The Fall involved a pride, a false notion of independence, a distorted idea of autonomy, of self-reliance. And in the healing process that Christ brings we learn – in certain respects – to become more dependent on others; we learn that we are not alone; we learn that we are not meant to cope on our own. It’s OK to need others, it’s OK to ask for their help.

This is one reason why devotion to the saints is so important. In praying for others, and in asking others to pray for us, we learn to depend on their help – and our proper identity as children of God and as brothers and sisters is restored.

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Do the ideas of ‘solitude’ and ‘silence’ have any meaning for those of us who live in the madness of the city, who are haunted by the endless demands of modern life? 

genèse, errance et solitude de la consommation by TisseurDeToile -[*].

I’m just back from a talk about Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House, and the woman who introduced the concept of ‘poustinia’ to the West. Here is just one paragraph from a wonderful website about her life and works:

In response to the deepening dilemmas of the Western world, Catherine offered the spirituality of her Russian past. She introduced the concept of poustinia, which was totally unknown in the West in the 1960’s, but has since become recognized in much of the world. Poustinia is the Russian word for “desert,” which in its spiritual context is a place where a person meets God through solitude, prayer and fasting. Catherine’s vision and practical way of living the Gospel in ordinary life became recognized as a remedy to the depersonalizing effects of modern technology. In response to the rampant individualism of our century, she called Madonna House to sobornost, a Russian word meaning deep unity of heart and mind in the Holy Trinity—a unity beyond purely human capacity.

And here are her own words from the seminal book Poustinia, Chapter XV: “The Poustinia of the Heart”:

Well, we have arrived at the end of this book on the poustinia. I myself have always been attracted to the silence and solitude of God. When it became obvious that my vocation was not to be physical silence and solitude, when I was thrown into the noisiest marketplaces in the world, God showed me how to live out the poustinia ideal. The heart of it is that the poustinia is not a place at all—and yet it is. It is a state, a vocation, belonging to all Christians by baptism. It is the vocation to be a contemplative.

The essence of the poustinia is that it is a place within oneself, a result of baptism, where each of us contemplates the Trinity. Within my heart, within me, I am constantly in the presence of God. The poustinia is this inner solitude, this inner immersion in the silence of God.

“This is the poustinia I have been trying to talk about. This is the poustinia I so passionately want to give to everyone. I know that in the poustinia lies the answer that the world is seeking today. If we lived in the poustinia of our hearts then love would enter the world through us. We could speak God’s word to the world. It is the poustinia of the heart that I believe is the answer for the modern world.

Chinese Hut by Falconne007.

And finally, the distillation of the Gospel that Catherine put together in her ‘Little Mandate’, which forms the heart of the spirituality of Madonna House today:

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.

Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.

Love… love… love, never counting the cost.

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.

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I don’t like the concrete worms and the piles of pigment, but it’s worth paying the entrance fee at the Royal Academy just to see four of the installations at the Anish Kapoor exhibition.

Madness: A huge, fetishistic cannon, like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, fires twenty pound shells of red wax across an exhibition space into the next room. The wax gloops down the wall and creates its own work of art below. The crowd waits in anticipation for the next explosion – the hiss of compressed air reminds us of roadworks and operating theatres. Then the bang; the brief moment of after-silence; and the gasps and giggles and conversations. It is just great, mad fun. It feels slightly anarchic, teenage. Then you realise that the antique-looking door-frame through which the pellets fly is a false one put in to protect the real one behind; they couldn’t take the risk of blowing up the real Royal Academy. The disappointment and the simultaneous delight in discovering that it is all a sham. The same as realising that Doris Salcedo’s crack in Tate Modern’s concrete floor was really a construction in an artificial platform.

Anish Kapoor by gerard@neogejo.

Magic: A mirror – nothing more. 20 feet long, 8 feet high, slightly curved. But curved so cleverly, and polished so lovingly. If you stand 12 feet away, you are upside down; but you can see all those at 8 feet, who are the right way up. Walk closer, and you invert. If you stand 20 feet away, and look at someone just 3 feet from the surface, their face is so large and clear you feel you could reach out and touch it. Every shift in posture or position brings a new image, a new perspective. Everyone is looking at everyone else, without self-consciousness. Smiling. Frowning. Shuffling along to get the effect, even dancing. Where else do you dance with strangers in the clear light of day?

Mysticism: A wall, hollowed out and painted yellow – nothing more. But the precise curves and pigments, and the lack of definition, make it impossible to focus on anything properly. It’s not just the uncertainty of whether it is concave or convex. It’s the fact that you seem to be looking, at one and the same time, into a place of infinite distance, and into a presence that is just before your eyes, even a part of you. It suggests the mystery of knowledge, of what it is to know anything - which brings into your own experience what is really apart from you. It hints at a deeper mystery, a mysticism, of how something or someone Absolutely Other can remain other and still approach us in our physicality, our humanity.

Anish Kapoor by huhuguy.Something of all three: And the showpiece and central folly manages to combine some madness, some magic, and also something of the mystical. A vast block of red wax, thirty tonnes, the size of a railway carriage, moves almost imperceptibly along a track laid across five rooms; gets to the end; and then turns around. Of course it’s mad. There is a lot of magic too. Not just in the questions raised (how does it move? is anyone controlling it? will it collapse?), but also in the visual experience of trying to track the movement of an object that seems not to be moving – like the Millennium Wheel. The mysticism took me by surprise – and it was in the attitude of others rather than my own personal response. As the wax got near the final room, scores of people were there waiting. The innocent excitement of the hall of mirrors had disappeared, and there was a solemnity in the air. It was like waiting for a God to arrive. A sense of religious awe – even homage. As if we were investing an event with meaning even though we had no understanding of what it meant. Fascinating and disconcerting.

Yes, you should go and see the exhibition. And if you don’t want to pay just go for the reflective spheres in the courtyard.

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Conversion is a fascinating topic. What is it that brings someone to re-think the meaning of their life and take it in a new direction? I don’t mean those mad moments when we do something completely out of character and regret it soon after. Or the radical decisions we make to turn our back on something important, when deep down we know that it really is still important. I mean those rare times when we look at ourselves and at the world and somehow understand them in a completely new way, from a different perspective. Or when we discover a new truth so profound that it forces us to re-cast other truths that have been central to our lives.

Sartre by lord marmalade.

For Sartre, the possibility of conversion was the clearest sign of human freedom. It shows that we are not completely determined by the past, by the forces that have shaped us, or even by the people we have become. It shows that we always have the possibility of making something new of our lives. He delights in:

…these extraordinary and marvellous instants when the prior project collapses into the past in the light of a new project which rises on its ruins and which as yet exists only in outline, in which humiliation, anguish, joy, hope are delicately blended, in which we let go in order to grasp and grasp in order to let go – these have often appeared to furnish the clearest and most moving image of our freedom [Being and Nothingness, 1958 Edition, p476].

Eduardo Verástegui en DAV by HazteOir.org.These thoughts come to mind because Eduardo Verastegui was in the UK last week speaking at a Catholic youth festival and promoting his new film Bella. His is a classic conversion story. He rose to fame in a Mexican boy-band, became a huge TV star, finally broke into Hollywood, and then renounced it all when his English tutor (a committed Catholic) pushed him to think about where his life was going and what it all added up to. He realised that his whole lifestyle was taking him further and further away from God, poured his heart out in confession, and has spent the last seven years doing pro-life work and organising house-building schemes in Mexico. More recently, he has been trying to get back into Hollywood – this time to produce films that will have a positive influence on society, and to realise his dream of setting up a centre for Catholic culture there that would counteract the darker influences of that ambiguous world.

It’s an inspiring story. You can read a short article about his life and conversion here. And if you want more then see the video here - jump ahead to 2.25 for the interview where he tells his story.

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