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Archive for May, 2013

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

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

The front of the house on Gower Street

The front of the house on Gower Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fr Stephen

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

mamet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interesting to read this short piece by Jenny McCartney about the way we try to hide from the reality of death in our Western culture. She doesn’t give any real spiritual perspective, and she doesn’t speculate about how this lack of a spiritual perspective might be the very cause of the problem she highlights – but her comments about how death has almost become taboo are worth reflecting on.

It is the fashion, in modern times, to emphasise the need for tastefulness in talking of death, of a certain concealing decorum. We used to be like this about sex, but that’s gone now: the media is saturated with sexual imagery and advice, and everywhere you turn, public figures are kissing each other lasciviously on the lips – particularly if they are glamorous women – and telling you more about their bedroom antics than anyone ever asked to know.

The taboo has simply shifted, however. As the door to the bedroom has been thrown open, access to the deathbed has been barred. No one seems to linger long there, conversationally or otherwise: too often, a death is treated like an embarrassing fact, a regrettable failure of life that is best hushed up.

We are built to cling to life, unless that instinct is withered in us through long suffering, extreme altruism or despair, and so when we read about the deaths of other people, we are moved partly because we start imagining our own: the pain of leaving the people we love, and their confusion at our departure. Or we think of the helplessness of watching someone we love slipping beyond our reach. The notion of death is so mysterious and enormous that, in many cases, it seems easier just to lock it away, although it has a way of escaping and sneaking up on our peripheral vision.

The rapid expansion of the “anti-ageing” industry in the West peddles an airbrushed vision of a world in which ageing or mortality can be almost indefinitely deferred by the dutiful ingestion of supplements and restless application of pseudo-scientific skin treatments. What it can’t offer, of course, is any guaranteed change to the final outcome.

Still, the option of pretending to ignore death (for a period of our lives, at least) has not been available to the bulk of humanity throughout history. In the 15th century, when the Ars moriendi, or “Art of Dying”, was written, the book desperately sought to popularise the concept of a “good death”, partly because – in the aftermath of the Black Death – an early demise was so frequent and lurid that some kind of etiquette guide was required. Both real-life accounts and novels were later preoccupied with the deathbed scene, which was, in many ways, the dramatic high point of a person’s life. It was their moment in which to forgive, regret, recant or curse, the final deal, the instant at which they revealed their essential self, and onlookers were unashamedly interested in it.

I can never think of the deaths of those I knew and loved, even those who were very old, without some small recurrent aftershock, some fresh sense of the overwhelming strangeness of their disappearance. The ritual of mourning and the ceremony of the funeral or memorial provides shapes for grief to stumble into, yet even those are designed primarily to comfort the living. What our society presently lacks – save for a few enlightened homes and hospices – is much structured means of comforting the dying, who are too often abandoned in hospital wards surprised by fear and pain.

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I’ve just come across this Catholics in Healthcare blog, edited by Jim McManus.

health

As well as the regular posts, it has a very useful page of practical resources, and another page of theological resources.

Here is the ABOUT page:

Celebrating and supporting the Catholic contribution to health, social care and social action

Catholics are busy and engaged in Health and Social Care. We see the work of caring for others as a core part of being Catholic. From being informal carers and volunteers to pursuing careers in nursing, medicine, social care, research and policy, Catholics

There are well over 1.000 Catholic agencies and organizations in the UK providing some form of health and social care, from volunteer groups  in parishes to local and national Catholic Charities , Religious Orders which specialise in nursing, health and social care;  and official agencies of the Catholic Church at local level such as Diocesan agencies. The Catholic health and social care presence is large and diverse.

This blog

This blog is created by, about and for Catholic Christians working in Health and Social Care. The Blog will update you on the work of the Healthcare Group of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales as well as providing you with access to other resources and support.

Our Editor and contacting us

The editor of the Blog is Jim McManus, a member of the Healthcare Reference Group of the Bishops’ Conference.

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

htb

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

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

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

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

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

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When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.

assisi

Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.

Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.

How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.

How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.

It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.

He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.

I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.

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Most of us in the seminary are wearing fluorescent green electronic devices clipped to our belts. You might think they were tagging devices, but we find it easier and cheaper to track seminarians by hacking into their mobile phone signals. (Joke! I can imagine some crazy person reading this post too quickly and saying to a friend, ‘Did you know they tag the students at Allen Hall?!’).

In fact, we have splashed out on a job lot of pedometers. We are divided into teams of five, and the aim is to see which team can ‘walk to Rome’ first. I’ve just looked this journey up on Google Maps, and it comes out as 1,089 miles and 356 hours on foot.

Pedometer by Shopping Diva

This is a much classier version than the ones we have

 

It’s not communal virtue. It’s self-improvement. Trying to get the activity levels slightly higher, to improve our all-round health and well-being, and giving us the time-honoured incentive of a competition to urge us on.

I know this sounds daft, but in the first two days I walked three miles without going anywhere. What I mean is that I spent the whole time in the building here; and the only time I went out was to give a talk in a parish in west London, and I drove there. So without going anywhere, without walking along a street, I clocked up three miles – just going back and forwards from office to dining room to chapel to photocopier etc. It’s not a big house, and it shows how far you can walk just going about your ordinary business.

I did about ten miles in the first few days. Then…disaster struck. Coming out of the chapel, and straightening myself out after Mass, I caught the blasted pedometer with my right hand, it crashed to the floor, AND IT RE-SET ITSELF TO ZERO!! Ten miles down the drain; ten miles for nothing. I rushed to the college ‘Walking to Rome’ arbitrator, and she said she would give me the benefit of the doubt and add these on at the end. But I understand that now everyone is talking about their pedometers crashing and re-setting, when they had 50, 100, 200, 500 miles on them…

It has made me curious about how much I do walk, and walking in general; and I suppose that’s half the point. I chatted to a friend today and she said that when the pedometer craze broke over the UK years ago (we are very behind here), it was suggested that 10,000 steps was a healthy and realistic distance to aim at each day if you are trying to take this walking thing seriously. That’s about 5 miles.

You can tell I am getting pulled in, because now I want to buy a decent pedometer to replace the unreliable one I’ve got. I’ll try to remember to update you. I’m sure you are fascinated by my personal step-count. Maybe I could do a weekly post about this…

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