Thursday, 28 May 2009

Glow-in-the-Dark Monkeys!

It seems a group of Japanese scientists have bred monkeys that glow in the dark. They claim that this will help scientists to treat diseases in humans. Call me unimaginative but that smacks of a non sequitur to me. In fact, I half suspect they just thought glow-monkeys would be cool, and then thought up a scientific-sounding reason to do it. Or maybe that's just what I would have done. Meanwhile the common cold still remains uncured. Go figure.

Friday, 22 May 2009

New Archbishop!

This morning Sydney-time saw the Installation Mass of the new Archbishop of Westminster and Primate of England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols. It took place in Westminster Cathedral in London, which I still maintain to be the most beautiful church I have yet set foot in.

I just finished watching the BBC's transmission of the Mass, which can be found here together with details about the Mass, and thought I should blog some thoughts and impressions. And give voice to the palpable joy, exultation and renewed spiritual zeal in my heart brought on by it too.

So some thoughts:

1. Nice liturgy. Good hymns. How refreshing it is to have boy soprano choirs put to the service of the Holy Sacrifice rather than a pale imitation!

2. The Archbishop kneeling to pray at the Western door. How difficult that would be to do. Its difficult enough to truly pray at the best of times. But to do it in a moment of immense personal importance when nervousness and adrenalin would be at their height, in public, with photographers and TV cameras capturing every nuanced facial expression, every tic- that would be insanely difficult. To actually pray in such circumstances would take a lot of spiritual discipline. I couldn't do it. I don't know if the Archbishop succeeded. For his sake, I hope he did.

3. Rowan Williams' words, which were nonetheless sincere and solid, brought home to me for some reason the fact that the time is rapidly approaching when the Catholic Church is going to be the main game in town, the public face of Christianity in England. Which is not to diminish in any way Rowan Williams' words. But if the Church of England continues to shoot itself in the foot, the exchange between Archbishop Nichols and Rowan Williams at this Mass may find a very different parallel when it comes time for the Archbishop's successor to be installed in a few years.

4. I was strangely gratified to see a whole row of rabbis in the congregation. However, I can't help but wonder how they reacted during the first reading as St Paul was listing off his Jewish credentials and then launched into his testimony of how Christ appeared to him.

5. The sermon- this was the bit that really grabbed me.
A three point sermon too. My grandfather would be pleased. And how apt were those three points. Here they are, as far as I could grab them.

(i) Faith in God does not narrow the mind but opens it.

(ii) Faith in God is necessarily public by its very nature. It cannot be private.

(iii) Faith in God is not opposed to reason but is its necessary complement.

All messages that our culture, and especially the culture in England, needs urgently to hear. The sermon was delivered to a mixed audience, and I think the Archbishop handled that fact very well. These of course were the main points. But other things were touched upon, some very topical and necessary indeed. These included, in no particular order, a very obvious allusion to the issues of abortion and euthanasia, a call for ecumenism and dialogue to go beyond mere slogans and words and drive at the heart and substance of respective belief systems and the need for the media to be honest rather than biased. Also, I particularly liked this phrase- "...reasoned principles [must not be] construed as prejudice".
This sermon, more than anything else I know or have heard, gives me profound hope that Archbishop Nichols knows clearly the situation and is prepared to fight.

6. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's quip about the Nunc Dimittis made me laugh out loud. I had to part ways with him, though, when he said "Deliver us from evil" did not refer to sin. An innacurate and unhelpful comment. Nonetheless, I wish him well and pray for him.

So there it is. Those are my first impressions. Watch the transmission yourself and see what you think. For my part, I have some guarded hope for the future of the Church in England. I think there is a storm coming- I don't know how soon. In the midst of everything else, I shall be watching Archbishop Nichols with great interest. And will pray for him with all my heart. Together with the whole company of heaven.

St Alban, pray for him.
St George, pray for him.
St Thomas Becket, pray for him.

Bitter but Hopefully Fruitful Failures

I have been following with some interest and melancholy the news that has come out recently about the scandals in Ireland. Along the way I came upon this article from the Telegraph website. The extent is quite extraordinary. 70 years! Was even Boston in 2002 as bad as that? Utterly shameful.

In the midst of all this, the soon-to-be Archbishop of Westminster said a few words, which addressed all the issues perfectly- or as perfectly as one might manage in a soundbite (certainly better than almost anybody on any of the scandals I've heard so far). This portion is particularly apt- 'Asked why abuse seemed more prevalent in the Catholic Church than other faiths, he said: "Every time there is a single incident of abuse in the Catholic Church it is a scandal. And I'm glad it's a scandal. I would be very worried if it wasn't a scandal... I hope these things don't happen again but I hope they're never a matter of indifference."'

This reminds me of these words of Chesterton: "This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed... So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless."

We may fail at our standards but we are doomed if we lower them. Scandal, as the future Archbishop speaks of it, is in one sense a sign of health. Like pain, it tells us something is wrong with the Body. Hearing of things like these makes one's heart lurch and one's stomach turn. It would be better if we didn't hear of things like this- that they did not happen. But given that they have, our reaction is healthy. To hear of such things and take it in our stride would be the ecclesial equivalent of leprosy, the Body of Christ falling apart and us oblivious to the gravity and danger of it. It is true, statistically, that these kinds of things happen in public schools, hospitals, colleges and all sorts of places to roughly the same extent as in the Catholic Church, give or take. I recall that something similar (albeit consensual) took place during my time at high school, causing great scandal, and that was a non-denom Christian school. But it is proper that the public scandal should be greater when it happens in the Church. That means that, even if many have not lived up to the gospel standard, the standard at least remains high, higher than any other institution.

Our hope and prayer, of course, is and should be that these despicable failures should be fruitful, as Chesterton says, rather than fruitless. We may hope that the bishops in Ireland see things as clearly and honestly as Archbishop Nichols. For we believe firmly in two things: the concrete reality of sin, and a God Who can undermine our sins by bringing good out of them. That takes faith to hold onto in scandals like these. But once, long ago, we murdered God, and out of that He forged the redemption of the whole of creation. He can do anything!

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Longest Name Ever?

Funny the random information you happen upon sometimes. In an article on something completely different that I was reading, I stumbled upon a reference to a guy with an extremely long name. Some quick online research yielded some information, including the fellow's name, which is Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfe­schlegelstein­hausenberger­dorffvoraltern­waren­gewissenhaft­schaferswessen­schafewaren­wohlgepflege­und­sorgfaltigkeit­beschutzen­von­angreifen­durch­ihrraubgierigfeinde­welche­voraltern­zwolftausend­jahres­vorandieerscheinen­wander­ersteer­dem­enschderraumschiff­gebrauchlicht­als­sein­ursprung­von­kraftgestart­sein­lange­fahrt­hinzwischen­sternartigraum­auf­der­suchenach­diestern­welche­gehabt­bewohnbar­planeten­kreise­drehen­sich­und­wohin­der­neurasse­von­verstandigmen­schlichkeit­konnte­fortplanzen­und­sicher­freuen­anlebens­langlich­freude­und­ruhe­mit­nicht­ein­furcht­vor­angreifen­von­anderer­intelligent­geschopfs­von­hinzwischen­sternartigraum, Senior.

I feel better for knowing that. Don't you?

Homeschooling Beowulf

Needless to say, I heartily approve of this. High school students ought to be exposed to English epic poetry, even if in translation. Certainly better than not being exposed to it at all. The Kennedy translation this course uses is quite good actually, preserving the metre for the most part admirably well. More power to Prof. Russell.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Soft Totalitarianism in England

This is what we're up against. Nice to see it being recognised for what it is, and in The Australian, of all places. File this under "More Reasons to Ask for the Prayers of the English Martyrs and of St George".

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Tyburn Walk

This Sunday is Mother's Day. It will also be the occasion of the Tyburn Walk in London, the hundredth, in fact. This is to commemorate and remember the martyrdom of so many who risked their lives by maintaining and bearing witness to the Faith in England when this had been made illegal. Their sacrifice cannot be overstated. Nor can their love of the Lord and of the gospel.

Seeing as their feast was on Monday last, the walk takes place this Sunday, beginning on the spot where Newgate prison once was, in which most of the martyrs were imprisoned prior to their execution. Details of the route are here and here.

I recall my own walk to Tyburn following my Canterbury pilgrimage. There is something strangely symbolic about the fact that the last long part of the route that the martyrs took to the gallows is now the main shopping street in central London, Oxford Street. I walked down there and was stunned by the contrast. 500 years ago the crowds lined the streets, watching, jeering, as the condemned were borne to where they would spill their blood for Christ. Now, the crowds still line the streets, but oblivious to what transpired here not all that long ago, self-absorbed, intent on their material betterment, attracted by storefronts, distracted, busy. The site of the gallows itself is now a traffic island. To get to it, one has to cross one lane of traffic, then walk along a narrow lane divider down the middle of the road. Those brave or foolish enough to do this are rewarded with a very small plaque barely a couple of inches across embedded in the centre of the traffic island, nothing more. Thus are all the martyrs who died on this spot commemorated and honoured.

Events like the one this Sunday proclaim that these men and women who united themselves with the Lord even to the spilling of their blood are not forgotten by those who yet hold the Faith for which they died. Events like this proclaim that the blessed blood of the martyrs cannot be erased from the soil of London, even if Public Works decide to build roads and traffic islands on top of it, even if ten thousand cars roll over it every day. Events like this proclaim that the Christian witness given by their sacrifice has not been dimmed, and yet nourishes the faith and lives of those who have come after. Events like this proclaim that the Catholic Church, founded by Christ and planted in these islands by St Augustine at Pope Gregory's behest, is not going to fade away or become diluted or go quietly into that secularist paradise in which God's nonexistence and the foolishness of religion are taken for granted, for which so many hope and for which so many are presently working. Events like this proclaim that the universal Church is a fighting church and that our victory comes precisely when we appear defeated, and that in our weakness is our strength. Events like this proclaim that Christianity in England will be renewed in the face of its annihilation, and that the Church's best weapon is men and women who, for love of Christ, are willing to taste death in union with His.

A Thought or Two on the Modern Malaise

Recently, I found this quote by the great Baptist preacher, C.H. Spurgeon:

The sharpest pangs we feel are not those of the body, nor those of the estate, but those of the mind...The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity, but a wounded spirit who can bear?...You may have no outward cause whatever for sorrow, and yet if the mind be dejected, the brightest sunshine will not relieve your gloom.
(Sermons Vol. 11)

I think that pretty well sums up the modern malaise, especially amongst youth. Nothing particularly wrong, but the spirit is dark, haunted and broken. It reminds me of something Cardinal Pell said in an interview a while back. The reporter asked him how the young people could be expected to cope with the modern world being in the mess its in. The good Cardinal replied something like, "That's rubbish! Young people in Australia have never had it better! They've never been through a war. They've never been poor or hungry. They can find jobs without very much trouble. Education is not only possible but compulsory. Cope with what?"

That is precisely the question. If our culture expects that external and material needs are what will make one happy (and every TV advertisement proclaims as much), then why when all of these are fulfilled are the people not happy? Or is there something we're missing, something that both Cardinal Pell and Spurgeon know about but which the bulk of our culture has forgotten?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


With the outbreak of swine flu, some Mexicans have decided to take no chances. (photo from Anna Arco's Diary at the Catholic Herald)

Touched by God

I have recently been digging into this book- a collection of testimonies of people who have taken up Benedict's call to follow hard and fast after God by entering the monastery. It is a fascinating and challenging read.

A number of things emerge strikingly from it. Here's one.

One of the most common experiences that every person in the book describes in some form is a period of intense difficulty that seems generally to begin in the novitiate (though not always) and reaches a supreme intensity in the years after Solemn Profession (when the monk/nun makes a total and irrevocable commitment to monastic life, like marriage vows). Each person who has written in this book speaks of a point where it all became too much, where they felt empty, depressed, utterly alone; felt that they might have made a mistake in choosing this life, that, in short, they needed out. For the reader, they certainly don't paint the monastic life in very flattering colours. It appears ruthless and demanding, like the army, maybe worse.

I know that there was a mass exodus from the various monasteries and Orders in the 60s and 70s, which is when most of these folk entered it, and one expects to hear such things from people who did leave. What makes these testimonies interesting is that each of these individuals stayed. For some it was a near thing. But God beckoned each of them on in different ways, and each of them made the choice not to abandon Him or their vows. One man took up an offer to study theology in Rome for three years, and through that whole experience returned to the monastery with his faith and his monastic vocation revivified. One lady did leave but had to go back to pick up some things, heard the sisters singing Vespers, and in that moment remembered the vow she had taken, the longing to surrender herself totally to seeking after God and realised that she could never really live contentedly elsewhere. One man took up a post as parish priest in which he served for seven years. Only then, after he had seen what it was all in aid of, was he ready to take up his monastic calling to the full.

At least one of the writers submitted that that period of utter desolation is what St John of the Cross means when he talks about the 'dark night of sense', that point that a person reaches where God makes the offer to them of loving Him for Himself simply, and not for any of His gifts; and so all the gifts are removed for a time and the soul left to grope after God, and eventually find Him, with no external incentive apart from Himself and that only. I have never experienced that, although I think two years ago I may have experienced something which approached it, albeit for a couple of weeks, not years at a time. The prospect is a scary one. One does not get many warm fuzzies reading these testimonies. But our faith is a relationship and it is proper that it should have these elements. We are called to love a Person. More than that, we are called to love Him the same way He loved us. And, if we take a moment to look at the Cross, we realise there was absolutely no external incentive for Him to love us. He loved us while we were still sinners, in the midst of our sin, and even had the creative audacity to use our sin to redeem us, though at the cost of His own life.

Why did the martyrs go to their deaths rejoicing? Why did Francis exult in giving up everything he could think of? Why did Anthony run to the desert? Precisely to reflect that extraordinary love in their own lives and, more than that, to live in that love; to become a diamond in which that light is captured, reflected and beamed forth anew.

Its a demanding relationship. It demands death. Actual death- with blood- or, failing that, the long, hard living death that stretches on for decades, that involves the sacrificial burning of our dreams, our desires, of all that we hold dear so that we may have, know and love Christ.

I become more and more convinced that we need to take this kind of relationship with God (for actually this is the only kind He offers us) deadly seriously. We live in a culture rife with hypocrisy, full of unfulfilled promises and salespitches. The saying by St Francis- "Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary"- is sometimes trotted out to relieve us of the responsibility of preaching the gospel with words. This is, I think, to misunderstand it. I do believe there is a lot of preaching with words that falls empty to the ground, even if well-intentioned. This does not, however, relieve us of the responsibility of bearing witness. On the contrary. But so much of our witness proves a counter-witness because our lives tell against it. People will only stand up and take notice when we look like what we're talking about. And that requires- REQUIRES- death. I suspect that there are times when it is actually easier to preach with words than not. To preach with our lives is well nigh impossible. Why? Because, well, at the end of the day, we don't want to die.

It is for this reason that I begin to get an inkling of why, in the second great Christian evangelistic push, after the Roman Empire fell, it was the monks who succeeded in converting whole nations, including most of those which are now sliding inexorably into a post-Christian malaise (eg. England, France, Germany, etc.). Every skerrick of the monk's life demands death; and every skerrick is a pull, an impulse, a tug towards the extraordinary love of God incarnated in Jesus Christ. Take a dozen lives formed in that kind of crucible by that kind of lifestyle and plant them in a pagan nation that has never heard the gospel before and things will happen!

This is why I begin to realise how necessary the monastic vocation is in our own time. Monasteries are not just powerhouses of prayer (although we certainly need them to be that too- nothing is more powerful than prayer and Christians who don't see the point of monks and nuns simply haven't understood what Scripture teaches about prayer); they are powerhouses of evangelism. Our post-Christian culture will always be able to dismiss Christians as hypocrites who don't believe in what they're selling as long as we allow ourselves to be merely singed by the Holy Spirit's fire, rather than burned up. Monks and nuns are there to show us, and the non-Christian world, what the latter is supposed to look like.