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Archive for June, 2011

One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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I admit it – this is just a gratuitous post because I happen to have listened to some old CDs in the car over the last couple of weeks. Anyway, there is no doubt that Radiohead’s OK Computer has stood the test of time and must rank very high in any list of the greatest albums of the nineties.

It’s a triumph of music and mood over meaning. I haven’t got a clue what he is singing about most of the time. But what a mood they create, somehow in that strange space between exhilaration and despair.

Take “Let Down” as an example. Utterly depressing if you just listen to the lyrics, but somehow the music takes you beyond, as if the line about growing wings is not just a sign of desperation and frustration but some half-acknowledged sign of hope – quickly denied.

I need to go back to the album that came before – The Bends. At the time I preferred it over OK Computer because it was still on the edge of a classic rock album. I’m not sure what I’ll think now.

Jason Hirschhorn at Listverse agrees with me!

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What an amazing day. I was at St Mary’s University College yesterday for the Third International Symposium on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and I saw the fastest man in the world! The fastest man in the world ever! 100m in 9.58 seconds. (I didn’t see him do the 9.58 seconds.)

Let’s deal with Usain Bolt first. He was at St Mary’s for an afternoon of interviews and publicity. I heard this on the grapevine and snuck down to the gym where he was doing a photo-shoot. I don’t have tickets to the 100m final at the Olympics, so I presume this is as close as I will ever get to the legend. It was a sweet moment just to see him in the flesh, and to imagine watching the Olympics on the TV next summer.

Here is the world record run:

And the conference. It’s just getting started, but there were two interesting talks from Michael Waldstein and William Newton. Newton asked a fascinating question: Why does Pope John Paul talk about the spousal meaning of the body instead of the fraternal meaning of the body? There are many different ways of loving and relating and bonding, many different kinds of friendship, so why put the emphasis on the love shared by a husband and wife?

He gave what I thought was a good answer. He didn’t say that spousal love is the deepest kind of love, as if all other loves and relationships were a hidden longing for this – which wouldn’t make sense of the Christian understanding of heaven, and which would seem like a slight or an impossible burden to those of us (over 50% in the UK!) who are not married. Instead he said that spousal love provides an icon of the deepest meaning of all love; it shows with a particular clarity how every relationship – at its best – is about giving oneself in order to deepen the bonds of communion and friendship, a friendship that leads to new life for those in the relationship and for others.

In other words (I’m going a bit further than Newton did in his talk), all relationships, despite their radical differences – think of friends, siblings, parents and children, colleagues, fellow citizens, etc – have at heart an element of giving oneself, and receiving the gift of who the other person is, for the sake of communion and the giving of new life; they are unitive and procreative. It’s not that everyone has a vocation to be a husband or wife; it’s that everyone longs to give themselves to others in a way that has a particular iconic clarity in the love between husband and wife. This is why, according to Pope John Paul, the spousal meaning of the body has significance for all of us – married and unmarried.

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I was at St Patrick’s in Soho Square yesterday evening, for the middle part of a three-day celebration to mark the re-opening of the church after extensive repairs and refurbishment, and a complete remodelling of the crypt area.

St Patrick's from the outside - I can't find a shareable image of the new interior!

The overwhelming impression is of light, order and grace – qualities that I think are much-needed in this part of London.

It’s interesting that the re-opening has been reported in the secular as well as the Catholic press, a recognition that the event, and the church itself, have a particular significance for the wider London community and not just for Catholics.

This is how Riazat Butt in the Guardian reported it:

A former bordello and music hall owned by one of Casanova’s mistresses is perhaps an unlikely site for one of Britain’s oldest Roman Catholic churches, St Patrick’s, which sits amid the bright lights and fleshpots of London’s Soho.

“It is not a conventional parish,” observes Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who has overseen a 14-month, £3.5m project to restore the church and rid it of the damage caused by damp, dry rot, urban pollution, incense and candlelight. It reopens this week with a specially composed Magnificat from James MacMillan and a mass from Cardinal George Pell, who is flying in from Rome for the occasion.

The traditional nature of the celebrations – vespers and canticles – highlights the contrast between the orthodoxy of St Patrick’s and what lies outside it.

Sherbrooke says: “You get a knock on the door and it can be someone who is successful in business, someone who wants a sandwich or someone caught up in the sex industry. We leave our SOS prayer line calling cards in telephone boxes – where you might see other services advertised.

“One man who called said he was a pimp and wanted to break out of his occupation but that it was too lucrative for him to leave. Do we just accept the way people are? People get into ruts they find it difficult to break out of. We can say, as Christians, that God can and does intervene.”

Butt is impressed by the openness and outreach of the Catholic community at St Patrick’s:

The restoration work includes the creation of a crypt, classrooms and a cafe. St Patrick’s and a team of volunteers feed 80 to 90 homeless people a week with the Groucho – a private members’ club – supplying the puddings.

The work to the church will allow the team to cook and serve food from one location instead of having to prepare the meals in their own kitchens and drive them into central London.

Space will also be provided for alcohol and drug counselling. St Patrick’s will be the only Roman Catholic church offering this service in London […]

Migrant communities continue to be the lifeblood of the parish. On a typical Sunday St Patrick’s – or rather its temporary location at the House of St Barnabas – will attract around 700 people to five services, two in English, one in Spanish, one in Portuguese and one in Cantonese.

Alexander says: “In this part of London you don’t have resident parishioners. There are tourists who know we are here and workers. It is a place where they can rest their weary feet. There is a little bit of bucking the trend going on. The loneliness of this city is more intense than you can imagine. Soho has a darkness as well as the bright lights.”

Parishioners believe the church is important to Soho and to London. Pauline Stuart, who has been part of St Patrick’s for nine years, says: “We’re not the establishment – we can do things that Westminster Cathedral can’t. I do get comments sometimes – you know, ‘what’s a nice girl like you believing in all that mumbo jumbo’. But for me it’s true. I don’t care whether they convert or not. That’s God’s problem.”

It’s open all day, every day, so do pop in if you are in central London over the next few weeks – or indeed any time. There is a map and travel details here.

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I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

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