Archive for July, 2012


AMDG

Today is a special day for Jesuits and friends all over the world. It is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola.  It will be celebrated in thousands of schools, universities, parishes, retreat houses, refugee camps, radio stations, tv studios, publishing houses, blogs …… Ignatius of course was the founder of the Society of Jesus.  He wrote more letters than anyone in the sixteenth century, we still have over 7000 of them, so we know a lot about him. In an age when hagiographys were written about saints, often distancing us from a frank history of religious figures by the desire to create pious and edifying stories, Ignatius’ autobiography, reluctantly dictated as his life was ebbing away, is refreshing for its simplicity, honesty and desire to show how had grown through mistakes and failures. Last year, whilst I was in Manila on ‘tertianship’ which is like a renewal year for us Jesuits – I took the opportunity to read what I consider to be the best book about him  I have read.  Written by a Basque Historian, Jose Ignacio Tellechea Idigoras and called ‘The Pilgrim Saint‘. Idigoras, not a Jesuit but an award winning Historian, has an incredible amount of detail to hand and weaves it in with the background information to create a warm and compelling portrait of this great man.

If I was to be asked to sum up what Ignatius could teach us normal folk, struggling with faith or even outside the church, it would be by looking at the contrast between his early life and his later life. Ignatius as a young man was very unpleasant – arrogant, vain, promiscuous and violent,  being brought up in the spiritually toxic climate of the ambitious courtier desiring power, influence and conquests (political and sexual).  A little bit like our cult of celebrity today.  When his life was shattered along with his leg at the Battle of Pamplona, the lengthy convalescence forced a period of extensive introspection.  He didn’t like what he saw and opened his heart to God.  So as Idigoras masterfully put it – as well as reconstructing his disjointed leg, he began to reconstruct his disjointed soul.  In order to reconstruct we need something to build on.  From the chaos of Ignatius’s life of excess and disorder there were three things he could cling on to. 1)When he looked at his hands he could take comfort that he never engaged in pillaging as a soldier when the opportunity arose, a fact that was well known and respected. 2) When he considered his mouth,  he never once blasphemed even in the extreme pain after Pamplona. 3) Although he had enemies who had pursued him through the courts and sought his arrest after some of his outrageous actions, he didn’t carry any hatred in his heart. Perhaps this was the most important thing he could cling on to, as it is the heart where God slowly and silently can change us. And so began the long. slow journey back into God’s grace which bore has born so much fruit down the centuries.  By the end of his life God had achieved much through him, at the time of his death there were 1036 Jesuits, 11 provinces, 92 houses, 33 colleges at his death.  Idigoras leaves us with this beautiful portrait of the elderly Ignatius.

He wore a simple austere cassock and fought off the cold with a large cloak.  When he left the house he wore a voluminous cape and a broad brimmed hat with attached chords that he tied to his chin. It was impressive to see him walking in the street. He was always going, because of some business, to some specific place or to see some particular person. At this period in his life his fair hair had disappeared, he was bald and wore a short beard from which loomed an aquiline nose and high cheekbones.  His complexion had become darker, weather-beaten, perhaps even yellowish because of his liver ailment? His countenance, serious and peaceful, was the image of circumspection and a life lived interiorly. Some found it particularly luminous and expressive. His eyes which at one time had been sparkling and bright were now blurred by work, old age and copious tears. They had lost their gaiety but not their penetrating force. He seldom looked at people straight on.  When he did, however, people said he took in the person from head to toe. His gaze seemed to have the power of seeing straight through a person right into his heart. 

AMDG

I was blown away by Friday Nights Opening Ceremony.  It was beautiful, absorbing and emotional at times.  More than once it struck me as transcending mere ceremony to having a liturgical quality to it.  Whether it was the children’s choir hymn singing at the start, or the moving memorial to the victims of terrorism in the middle with its reflective change of pace, beautiful rendition of ‘Abide with Me’, or the powerful and symbolic lighting of the Olympic Flame at the end – ‘Easter Vigilesque’ – followed by the angel/bird like cyclist rising towards heaven.  These spiritual elements would have pleased Baron De Coubertin, the Jesuit educated founder of the modern Olympics who once said ‘  I tried from the beginning to awaken religious feelings by the renewal of Olympic movement … The sport-religious thought has entered only slowly into the awareness of the sports men and women … But little by little it will be taken quite seriously by them‘  (click here for reference).  I think that invoking of the power of the transcendent is when the ceremony moved into liturgical territory.

A previous Boyle / Boyce production

The religious elements may be no surprise when we take into account that the  author of the storyline to the opening ceremony was Liverpudlian Catholic writer Frank Cottrell Boyce.  I have been told that Cottrell Boyce is a regular visitor and guest at the Jesuit community here in Edinburgh.  His contribution was less hailed than that of Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of the opening ceremony. Danny Boyle was listed in a recent article of the Tablet on Britain’s most 100 influential Catholics.  Famously Boyle said in an interview, ‘I was meant to be a priest until I was 14, I was going to transfer to a seminary near Wigan. But this priest, Father Conway, took me aside and said, ‘I don’t think you should go’. Whether he was saving me from the priesthood or the priesthood from me, I don’t know. But quite soon after, I started doing drama. And there’s a real connection, I think. All these directors — Martin ScorseseJohn WooM. Night Shyamalan — they were all meant to be priests.’  One of my favourite films of recent years was Boyle’s production of Cottrell Boyce’s book Millions, about a young a 7-year-old English boy who talks to saints and comes upon a lot of money which he wants to distribute to the poor.  Boyle has since admitted to being a ‘spiritual atheist’, but in many of his works it is clear that there is a deep spiritual imagination and creativity at work.

It was nice that Boyle said that he agreed to take on the difficult task of following on from Beijing’s incredible opening ceremony because he was inspired by his dad who has since died.  I still remember him taking his Oscar in a carrier bag to show his dad after sunday mass at his parish social club of St Mary’s Radcliffe.   Much has been written about the influence of ‘Catholic Imagination’ – the idea that God lurks everywhere in creation, and so the move to the transcendent or spiritual from the mundane everyday is natural and smooth and almost imperceptible.  This is in contrast with another view of God being hidden or in conflict with the world, and so the spiritual is introduced in an explicit way, often jarring , like God is being ‘shoehorned’ in, often experienced in evangelical Christianity. I propose that Friday Nights fantastic ceremony was a product of the Catholic imagination of Frank Cottrell Boyce and Danny Boyle.

Olympic Beginnings

AMDG

Olympic enthusiasm finally seems to be eclipsing Olympic cynicism here in the UK as the Games begin.  There has been a tidal wave of articles in the press about the Olympic Games however I am surprised not to have read much about the father of the Modern Olympics, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Recently I investigated the beginning of the Modern Olympic movement for the British Jesuit’s on-line journal Thinking Faith.  De Coubertin belonged to an aristocratic Catholic family in the late nineteenth century who were being buffeted by anti-elite and anti-church currents in post-revolutionary Napoleonic France.  As a young man growing up in uncertain times he fell under the spell of a charismatic Classics teacher, Father Carron, at the Jesuit College of  Saint Ignatius in Paris.  Concerned that France, after a heavy defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, was in decline, de Coubertin found Father Carron’s classes about Olympia and ancient Greece a welcome escape from decline into past glories.  He became convinced that to reverse the decline in French fortunes their needed to be a widespread educational reform.  Impressed by the British Empire, he went on a tour of British schools and universities. Starting with the Jesuit colleges of Beaumont and Stonyhurst, even meeting Cardinal (now Blessed) John Henry Newmanhe became convinced that competitive sport played a much more central role in forming characters, particularly as it was often coupled in the boarding schools with a form of ‘muscular Christianity’ often inspired by Pauline metaphors.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, half-length portrai...

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, half-length portrait, standing, facing front (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However on his return to France his suggestions for educational reform had cold water poured on them. Discouraged but not giving up, he started dreaming of a bigger canvas to put his ideas into action.  The  International Olympic Committee was founded,  the motto ‘Citius, Altius & Fortius’  (Faster, Higher and Stronger) was borrowed from a Dominican priest, Father Diddon.  The first summer games  of the Modern Olympiad was held in Athens in 1896.  De Coubertin was to spend the rest of his life promoting his Olympic movement, even visiting the sports-oriented Pope Pius X to help him promote and widen ‘Olympism’.  However inspite of the Jesuit and Catholic roots to this enterprise, de Coubertin was to drift away from his early faith.  As he became more and more critical of Christianity he started to see ‘Olympicism’ and its attendant pageantry as being a replacement for religion.  He believed that the Olympic movement would awaken religious thoughts in its participants.  This distortion of his vision reached a climax in the infamous 1936 Olympics, where de Coubertin, after witnessing ‘Hitler’s Games’,  stated that only the Germans really understood his vision and expressed a desire that an institute would be founded to hold all of his letters and manuscripts after his death. If that has whetted your appetite you can read the whole of the article on Thinking Faith by clicking below.

Article ‘Dreaming of Olympia’

 

 

AMDG

Having returned to Edinburgh from beautiful Arisaig it is impossible not to notice all the posters that have popped up all over the place.  They announce the imminent arrival of the Edinburgh International Arts Festival and its 23 associated festivals.  There are book festivals, jazz festivals, politics festival, contemporary art festivals, street performance, internet festivals and interestingly a festival of spirituality and peace.  The Fringe festival (mainly comedians, but also theatre, poetry etc) is the biggest of its kind in the world. Last year the Fringe over three weeks held 2,500 international shows from 60 nations in 258 venues and sold nearly 2 million tickets. It is interesting to observe that stand up comedy has become hugely popular in the UK over the last 10 years.  The top names, are now like rock-stars and play to stadium sized crowds and regularly engage in very lucrative tours. Some of the comedy, dressed up as satire is fairly nasty, mocking and angry and does little to inspire and much to generate cynicism.  However it is interesting to note that the big stars, the most popular seem to have a more gentle approach, often more observational and self-deprecating. 

I am particularly looking forward to the Book Festival and the interestingly named ‘Festival of Spirituality and Peace’. In its twelfth year, the base for the religious festival is an Episcopalian Church, St Johns on Princes Street although there are over 400 activities across 21 venues. With speakers, conversations, performances, film, food, exhibitions, family activities, workshops, art, culture and more ‘FOSP’ is now looking forward to its twelfth year. According to their website the organisers aim is ‘ to encourage community by exploring diversity.   FoSP provides a platform for people to explore their own spirituality by engaging with other people’s, to promote peace.’  The programme is eclectic varying from a Soweto based dance troupe, Poetry in a Persian Tent, sessions on Ethical Banking, Jewish storytelling and Asian & Arabic fusion dance.  I am booking tickets for some discussion events, including one with the title of ‘Where are the Organisational Healers?’ and another intriguingly entitled ‘Churches own 8% of the planet’.  It is a fascinating time to be in Edinburgh – so I will share my experiences on this blog.

 

AMDG

English: View to Eigg. from Sleat, Isle of Sky...

The Island of Eigg is part of the Inner Hebrides

There is an archetypal story of the flower or plant that is very rare but exceedingly beautiful, or has mystical healing powers. In order to pluck this treasure you have travel to a remote spot, a high mountain perhaps or a lost island to locate it. The Church of St Donan on the Isle of Eigg feels like the ecclesial equivalent of that magical flower or plant. The Isle of Eigg has a population of 88, mostly nominal Catholics and the parish is served here from Arisaig, which means weather permitting (it’s a one hour boat ride) the get mass once a month. So two of us set out yesterday not knowing what to expect. What we found was truly a rare flower, overlooking the stunning Bay of Laig. There has been no resident priest on Eigg since the fifties, so a sporadic service from nearby mainland parishes probably accounts for the small active congregation – but as is often the case it is quality not quantity. I was very inspired by their commitment and their plans.

When you walk into the church you are hit by the delightful smell of the pine floor. The Church clean and recently renovated is beautiful. Such work is not cheap however, on enquiry theirs was a fascinating story about how the church renovation was paid for. The former priest had left a beautiful painting in the adjoining presbytery (recently demolished as it had fallen into disrepair). In his will he had stipulated that it only be sold to pay for renovation of the church. Removed to Oban and hung in the bishops house – the painting went into a bit of limbo.

St Donan who was massacred with over 50 of his monks by a Pictish Queen in 617

Meanwhile the small and tenacious group of parishioners were fretting about the state of the historic church, exposed to the raw Atlantic winds and harsh winter storms. Recently they heard about the renovation and rededication of the Catholic Church on the neighbouring Isle of Skye. They went to visit to get tips for fund-raising and they were told the best thing to do was to pray to their patronal saint. This they duly did, and the forgotten about painting came back onto the agenda – with one of the final acts of the retiring bishop to get it valued. With the value coming back at between 15,000 – 20,0000 it seemed that they would still fall short by a long way. They kept praying and the painting went up for auction at Sotheby’s two days after the feast of their parish saint. It was sold for nearly £250,000! Mairi, one of the parishioners told me with a beaming smile they are convinced it was due to the intercession of St Donan.

Inside the newly refurbished church

Now their plans are to get more priests visiting the islands to say masses on a more regular basis. They are even considering raising money to build a small chalet next to the church for the visiting priests. Meanwhile however they will be treated to island hospitality! So if you know any priests looking for a week away – in a beautiful spot – with wonderful walking, fishing, sea kayaking opportunities please tell them to contact Mairi at the following address.

Mairi Mackinnon , Maranatha

7 Cleadale , Isle of Eigg, PH42 4RL

Of course all arrangements should also be made through the Parish priest, Fr Andrew Barrett, the Parish Priest at Arisaig whose takes responsibility for the parish on Eigg. I left Eigg inspired by their story and keen to help them. A small but incredibly committed group of faithful. They are not asking for money but simply for priests so they can practise their faith… let’s try and help them!

Arriving for mass on a quad bike

AMDG

Many of the Catholic parishes in the Highlands of Scotland were also ‘crofts’ – which allowed the priest to support himself and the parish by living off the land. A croft is a small free-hold of land which allows sustainable living. As communities have got wealthier, the need for the parish to sustain a croft has diminished. However I now in many places the vestiges continue. I have had the joy the last few years to go to the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist for a few weeks supply in the summer at this parish click here.  The priest still has his own flock of sheep, real not metaphorical, and last summer I was presented with my own lamb, butchered and prepared by the parish shepherd!  Here in Arisaig  the priest keeps over 40 chickens, and ably assisted by the wonderful Winnie (left) we have a regular supply of ‘holy eggs’ which parishoners pick up and are enjoyed at breakfast. I have really enjoyed feeding the chickens with Winnie and learning about poultry-care.

Even better of course is enjoying the fruits of their labour. The parish house is equipped with a magnificent double egg-cup – first time I have seen one!  Not only does it allow you to be greedy – but also to compare tastes. Today I tried the light blue shelled egg along side a Polish chickens classic brown colour egg.  The Pole edged it slightly – with one of the richest yolks I have every enjoyed. It is true that free-range tastes much nicer.

There is a serious point – the growing movement of eating locally sourced and in-season products. Not only does it support the local economy, the food is healthier and tastier!  Scotland seems to be leading the way with this and the influential Fife Diet.  Asking local people to sign-up to eating food from the region of Fife, for a year,  and to monitor their progress and share their experience. The project has developed from a voluntary network into a funded body and in its development has changed from a small amount of people dedicated to eating ‘from Fife’ for a year, to a much larger network of people trying to re-localise more generally and to explore what sustainable food might be. It has won awards for ethical consumption.  Seeing the parishioners donate money and pick up their eggs  on Sunday was very inspiring – particularly as the younger contribute a bit more so the older folk can get their eggs very cheaply.  This could be a great idea for other parishes to take up!

AMDG

Arisaig – just to make you jealous ….

I am spending an unexpected week up in the West Highlands of Scotland in a beautiful place called Arisaig, helping out with a supply for the parish.  I am relishing the beautiful blue seas,  white / silver beaches and a welcome re-acquaintance with the sun ( I just saw on the news Edinburgh only had 1.6hrs of sun shine the first 10 days of July!).  Another great part of being up in the ‘remote’ highlands is that there is very little light pollution up here – so the nights can be very dark – perfect if you are an enthusiastic stargazer like me. There is nothing like spending an hour – in a comfortable spot, wrapped up warmly to gaze at the immensity of the heavens, counting shooting stars, identifying constellations, working out asterisms within the constellations,  squinting and trying to split binary stars with binoculars.  Planet spotting is great fun too – especially with the new apps on smartphones that effectively give you a portable planetarium.  Of course the planets do not generate light (unlike stars) but reflect the light from our star, the Sun, back to us.  I learnt that the technical term for the amount of light a celestial body reflects is Albedo and it is low for the Earth, as we reflect only about 0.36 percent of the light that comes in. The Moon is a bit better though and this week we can get the chance to see ‘Earth-shine’ reflected on the moons surface.

Earth Shine and the Old Moon in the New Moons arms – coming soon to a sky near you!

This week, everywhere, a new Moon is rising giving us a chance to bathe in this Earthshine, the light from the Earth that illuminates the Moon.  Right now is the perfect time to look for this enchanting phenomenon.  So if you look at the photo to the left – you will see a  new moon with about 10%  positioned so the sunlight hits it and bounces down to Earth (the bright bit).The rest of  the Moon, however, is positioned just right for the light from the sun to hit the Earth, bounce to the Moon, and come back down to the Earth again (the greyer 90%). That’s why we see, “The Old Moon in the New Moon’s arms.”  The best time to see it is just around sunset  when the reflected Earthshine is brightest.

Happy moon spotting!

AMDG

Now I am not turning this into a celebrity tittle-tattle blog but  I have to admit to having carefully read some of the reporting about Tom Cruise’s divorce, particularly the insights into Scientology and how it operates.  What has struck me is that Katie Holmes, like Cruise’s previous wife Nicole Kidman, has decided to return to her Catholic faith after leaving Cruise and the clutches of Scientology.  In fact very few people know that Cruise himself was brought up a Catholic, and his faith was sufficiently serious enough that he tried out a religious vocation with the Franciscans in Cincinnati.  Both Kidman and Holmes are technically called ‘reverts’ – they have left the faith and converted to another and then come back again. Katie Holmes has registered with the Jesuit parish of Francis Xavier in New York (click here).  It is interesting to note that the tipping point for Holmes seems to have been that she didn’t want their child to be brought up within the cult-like confines of Scientology.  The dynamic of children bringing their parents back to the faith is something that we priests see quite a lot.  Of course it is easy to be cynical about the bulge in baptisms before the deadline for applications to Catholic Schools, but God is patient and infinitely generous and I have witnessed many purifications of intent.

Religious retention rates vary enormously through different faiths, churches and cults and sects. The impressive Pew Research Institute recently published these findings (right) about US religious retention rates – at the top of the list are the Hindu’s with 84% raised in that faith remaining Hindu.  The highest Christian group were Greek Orthodox (73%) and then Catholic (68%).  It was recently reported that the biggest religious group in the US are Catholics, and the second biggest group are lapsed Catholics! At the bottom of the pile are Atheists where only 30% brought up in an atheist household remained atheist.  For me this is not a surprise considering children often rebel, some of the most religious Catholic 20-somethings I’ve encountered have parents who were strongly atheist.  It may also ve because there is more hostility to atheism in the US than in Europe and other places. There are many factors why people convert and revert. For newer waves of immigrants – Hindus and Muslims for example – religious affiliation is the main part of their cultural identity and so the culture pressures on them to retain their religious traditions, if not beliefs, are high. The same is true for Hispanic Catholics, but less so for many Protestant groupings and sects that lack an the institutional depth.

I wonder if you can get odds with Paddy Power on Tom Cruise eventually reverting?

Limit to what money can buy

AMDG

Hotel Klosterbrau – former monastery turned 5-star hotel

A great story yesterday about the richest football team in the world, Manchester City being thwarted by a priest!  The club, the newly crowned English Champions, are bank rolled by their owner Sheik Mansour the emir of Abu Dhabi.  They have spent around £250,000  on their pre-season high-altitude training camp in the Austrian village of Seefeld.  They are staying in a five-star hotel which is a former monastery. There has been three months’ preparation to make sure everything on the trip is perfect. The players, management and staff have taken over the top three floors of the hotel with their own private dining room, gym and massage area. They have even asked for specific high-density mattresses and summer duvets in all of their 54 double suites. The hotel had the mattresses hand-made and imported from an expert in Rome at a cost of around €1,000 per room!  They have also brought in its own chefs to prepare the food, with fresh fish flown in every two days from the Atlantic and North Sea.

The former monastery still has an active Catholic Church attached to it.  But here City found out that their spending power has limits!  The Hotel Manager said: “They wanted to ask the priest to switch off the bells of the church attached to the hotel. “The bells are ringing at 7 in the morning, 8 in the morning, and 9 in the morning.” Quite rightly the priest said No! ….. and he’s not even a United fan!!  So City can buy the Premier League Trophy but even they have found there are limits to what their money can buy.  As the Mastercard advert  might have said….

Pre Season Training Camp…..  £250,000

Hand Made Mattresses ………       £54,ooo

Fresh Fish flown in ……………       £ 28,ooo

Waking up to bells calling the faithful to mass as it has done for 500 years ….. Priceless !

AMDG

About a year ago I bought a rucksack (backpack)  from one of the excellent chain of stores called Go-Camping that are popping up all over the UK.  It has been a  great bag to have, although three of the zip-handles snapped when I was in the mountains of Northern Philippines.  I took the bag along to the Edinburgh branch to be fixed this morning and was amazed when they just replaced it with a new bag on the spot, simply and quickly.  I was very impressed with their service but slightly puzzled. The best I was hoping for was that they would be able to fix them in-house and I would pick it up in a few days, or give me new zip handles to fix myself.  I asked the guy who was serving me what are you going to do with the old bag? ‘We’ll send it back to the suppliers’ he said, without batting an eyelid.  Of course the rucksack had been made in China, but excluding the zips, I think it is of very reasonable quality. Consumers in the West have experienced the drop in prices of many mass-produced goods from China. Made in China once meant cheap and bad quality, but I think the quality is getting better.  Modern China may not be a great innovator, may not respect intellectual property rights or encourage creativity and entrepreneurship but they are good copiers and getting better.

Something has been nagging at me though.  On reflection, I would have preferred to have my old bag fixed.  I remember in India having a problem with a small speaker I had bought to amplify music and one of the members of the community was competent enough and skilled enough to fix it with some screwdrivers and a bit of glue. I confessed that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to have opened it up (even though it was only cheap) and he said to me ‘Well if anything breaks in Europe you throw it away and just by a new one!’.  How right he is! I also remember being amazed in Manila when I went to a market full of guys who could fix electrical equipment and watching the skill of the guy who fixed my phone for me.  So I have come to the conclusion that our hyper-consumerism is not just wasteful but it is also de-skilling. Marx talked about the ‘alienation’ of producers (often factory workers) from what they produced because they didn’t own the means of production, a theme also picked up in the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum. Could there be a new form of alienation of consumers in late-capitalism.  You get a great sense of satisfaction from repairing something rather than just chucking it away, however often in order to repair something you need to be provided with the tools/parts to do the job  and sometimes the training to. Nowadays domestic appliances come with forbidding labels such as ‘Disassembly voids warranty’ .  This sense of consumer alienation can be experienced by an impotent fury when confronted tamper proof seals. Now we are presented with shiny new replacement products in all their packaging whilst the old object, with its history, scuffs and stains, each one  which tells its own story is discarded.  There is something about the human soul that delights in being creative, there is something in the human vocation to be a co-creator …. however a throw-away culture stifles that.

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