Archive for August, 2012

Tale of Two Armstrongs


English: One of the first steps taken on the M...

The second most exciting footstep (according to Neil Armstrong) –  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot of travelling this weekend so I was able to immerse myself in news.  Two of the big stories – Neil Armstrong’s death and Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace –  touch two areas I am passionate about, cycling and space exploration.  And what a contrast.  Firstly Neil Armstrong – the quiet, modest, pilot and astronaut.  Much has been said about his technical genius in landing on the  moon with very little fuel left, his ability to calculate and improvise.  Not much has been written about the spiritual impact it had on the astronauts.  All highly trained technicians and scientists. When they gazed back at the earth in space it gave them a new sense of appreciation of how beautiful, wonderful  and delicate the Planet Earth is. They were to return as changed men, men of stronger faith.  Armstrong’s companion Buzz Aldrin shared communion with him discreetly after landing on the moon – click here.  There is also the beautiful story of how Armstrong, when he returned,  was taken on a tour of the old city of Jerusalem by Israeli archeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there.“These are the steps that lead to the temple,” Ben-Dov told him, “so He must have walked here many times.” Armstrong then asked Ben-Dov if those were the original stairs and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were indeed. “So Jesus stepped right here,” Armstrong asked. “That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov. To which Armstrong replied, “I have to tell you, I am more excited stepping on these stones than when I was stepping on the moon.”

Cover of "It's Not About the Bike: My Jou...

Cover via Amazon

In contrast. Lance Armstrong, who achieved an unthinkable 7 Tour de France titles, has had them stripped this weekend.  Like many I was inspired by his comeback from cancer, his amazing book, ‘It’s not about the Bike’ and also his superb Live Strong foundation.  Of course you are disappointed when the extent of the use of banned drugs becomes evident, it is simply cheating.  But I would still have retained admiration for Armstrong. However what has come to light this weekend is the incredible control he exercised over a network of former team mates, assistants and reporters.  His tacit admission of guilt has freed many witnesses and journalists to be able to speak without fear of retribution. The extent of the legal bullying that went on, the career destroying, the defamation of any whistle blowers, the pressure put on so many to collude in the cheating is incredible.  This ruthlessness and the single-minded determination is not glorious it is shameful. And what a contrast to his quiet fellow countryman who had a lot more to shout about.

Producing at the Fringe


Today we welcome a guest post from a producer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Cole Matson is a PhD student in Theology & Theatre at the University of St Andrews, and the Director of the Edinburgh Fringe Chaplaincy Project. He is also producing The World Over now through Sat 25 August, 22:25 at theSpace on North Bridge (V36): Tickets available here.
It’s been a hectic month here at the Edinburgh Fringe, with about 3,000 shows putting on about 40,000 performances over a 3.5-week period. My production, The World Over, about a man who believes himself to be the lost prince of a mythical kingdom called Gildoray, which everyone tells him doesn’t exist, is just one of many options from which Fringe audience members can choose. Thankfully, we’ve had well-above-average audiences (the average audience at the Fringe apparently being about 4 people), and have (almost always!) had more people in the audience than onstage. Audience feedback has been excellent, with an average of 4 stars from audience members, and at least one person saying it was the best show she’s seen at the Fringe. Of course, audiences can always be better, and it’s very tough to do a show with plenty of broad physical comedy when a relatively small audience in a mostly-empty theatre doesn’t feel free to laugh out loud. It’s easy to count laughs, or audience members, or ticket sales, and use those easily-quantifiable figures as a measure of one’s success. If one does so, performing at the Fringe can be very demoralising.
However, one deep connection can be more powerful, and more valuable, than many shallow connections. For example, I’m doing The World Over because when I saw its world premiere in New York 10 years ago, I sat in my seat and wept for 30 minutes after the final scene. I had to hug the lead actor and the playwright very tightly to express to them what their play had meant to me. The night I saw The World Over remains my most powerful experience in the theatre, and I wanted to share that experience with others. Thankfully, a director I met at St Andrews, who is a fellow student, also loved the play when he read it, and we performed it to acclaim last December at the university, before taking it to the Fringe. While no one has broken down weeping (yet), many audience members have told us that they were moved by the show, and ended up discussing it with their friends later that night, or the next day. It’s amazing to me how my one experience with this show has led to exponential growth in the number of other people who have now heard its story and been touched by it. And who knows how many other people this story of faith, innocence, heroism, and a lost prince whose kingdom is not of this world might touch by our audience members’ sharing of it.
To my mind, if we can touch one person with Goodness, Truth and Beauty through the sharing of the story of The World Over in the theatre, we have succeeded as storytellers. In addition, I have been pleased to hear from Fr Tim of another success story at this year’s Fringe. A few of us who are Christian performers at the Fringe have put together the Edinburgh Fringe Chaplaincy Project. Our mission is to support Fringe participants in the practice of their faith, by:

1) providing information on Edinburgh places of worship, including times of services, as well as Fringe outreach events
2) connecting participants for times of prayer and fellowship
3) serving as mentors and partners for Fringe participants of faith who need support
4) forming relationships with places of worship and other religious groups

While we were not able this year to do much more than create a website, begin to list worship times at local churches, and set up a Twitter account to receive prayer requests, Fr Tim did graciously offer his services as chaplain, and allowed us to list his contact information on our website so that Fringe participants who needed a listening ear could contact him. The padre let me know yesterday that Fringe performers have indeed been contacting him for a chat (as I’ve done more than once myself!). If I had been counting website hits or Twitter followers as the criterion of success, I could very easily have been discouraged, and considered the launch of the Chaplaincy Project this year a failure. However, knowing that it has served its purpose by connecting even one performer in need with a chaplain who could share with them God’s compassion and love, I thank God for its success. God uses even our feeble beginnings to accomplish powerful acts of love, and I am constantly staggered by His generosity.



The Spiritual Sleuth


Cover of "The Sixth Lamentation (Father A...

Cover via Amazon

Went to a fascinating talk yesterday with William Brodrick at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  Brodrick was an Augustinian friar for five years, before leaving to work with the homeless and eventually retraining as a barrister.  His first novel, ‘The Sixth Lamentation‘, became an international bestseller, and launched a new detective,  Father Anselm onto the world.  The sales went through the roof when Richard and Judy (a popular married couple who host a daytime TV show) chose it for their book club.  This endorsement has a similar effect in the UK as Oprah does in the US.  It has left me considering the enduring fascination of the spiritual sleuth, because what really makes a story a classic is not that it is ‘Who done it’  but it is because it becomes a ‘Why done it’.  The spiritual sleuth allows ruminations on the human condition that lift us above the cliché of the burnt out detective struggling with his own demons.  This maybe the reason that Father Anselm has led to Broderick being awarded the Golden Dagger – an illustrious annual award by the Crime Writers Association.


Brother Cadfael

Father Anselm is the latest in a long line of religious detectives in British Literature, Chesterton’s Father Brown and Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael being recent examples.  Broderick had some very interesting things to say about the Spiritual Figure in the crime genre, about how their interest will be greater than the immediate evidence to hand, with a special interest in the alluring dark corners of a person’s conscience.  Priests are used to ‘excavating silence’ and have become weather-beaten spectators to the dramas and tragedies of humanity, with the seal of the confessional providing a safe space for the soul to be bared.  A good crime novel is an engaging meditation on the problem of evil, exploring the motivations behind horrendous acts, the consequences of them and often the lack  of remorse.   At its best crime literature may even offer a meditation of the problem of good…. why under terrible conditions do some people live heroic lives and act in such a self sacrificing way? It was interesting to hear Broderick say that his editors keep on urging him not to keep redeeming his evil characters, it seems as though the compassionate pastoral side of him did not leave him when he left the Augustinians!  But therein lies a serious point – radical evil is a mystery. Its dark heart so repulsive that very few intrepid explorers can take it on, and within all of is is the temptation is just to deflect it, rationalise it or demonise it.

Oh by the way – Broderick’s new and fourth book – The Day of the Lie – has a written dedication in the first pages to our own Gerry J Hughes SJ, who taught him philosophy at Heythrop.

Visit of a Nobel Nominee


How do you get nominated for a Nobel Prize? ….. It’s not often you have the opportunity to ask that question – but I was able to do that here in the Edinburgh community to one of our visitors.  Fr John Dear SJ, is talking tonight at the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, part of the Edinburgh Festival.  He is a peace activist and writer.  He was not only nominated for a Nobel Prize, but for the big one – the Nobel Peace Prize, by none other than a former recipient – Desmond Tutu from South Africa.  Such a nomination is good for your publicity of course, and Festival organisers like to use it to get the crowds in, but what impresses me about John is that he doesn’t just do the big gigs, he also goes into schools and churches to promote his work.  In fact looking at his schedule he is going to be at Greenbelt, Birmingham,  Wigan, York, Sunderland, Garforth and London over the next ten days.

According to his resume he has been arrested over 85 times, including spending months in jail.  This seems to be part of the CV of a serious peace activist  following the tradition of non-violent action.  One of the most haunting experiences of his life was working as a Red Cross chaplain in response to the Sep 11 attacks, and then afterwards as one of the coordinators of the network of chaplains who followed up on a medium-long term basis by visiting the families of the victims.  He has just written a new book – ‘ Lazarus -Come Forth’ (his 28th book!) which is a reflection on working as a peace activist in the ‘Culture of Death’.  John Paul II coined the phrase ‘Culture of Life’ when he visited the US for World Youth Day in 1993, the Culture of Death is everything that opposes the sanctity of life including unjust war capital punishment and also abortion, euthanasia.  There has been a lot written about this in Catholic circles, especially in America where it is often used in the  rhetoric of the Culture Wars.  What I am very interested in is the development of analysis which looks at the growth of  narcissism, excessive selfishness and sometimes even sadistic humiliation that could be seen as underpinning a culture of death.  I don’t know whether this is addressed in John’s new book – I’ll have to read it and find out!

If you are interested in listening to Fr John Dear during his tour of the UK – here is a link to his web page which has details of venues, times and contacts.   Click Here 


Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997); at a pro-life meeting in 1986 in Bonn, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am helping the Missionaries of Charity, popular known as Mother Teresa‘s nuns, with a triduum at the moment.   A triduum is three days of prayer or retreat, often before a particular feast or special day.  Here in Edinburgh, as with many of their communities, the Sisters do very important work with homeless and the poor.  Their life is also very impressive, in its simplicity and its commitment. They  don’t even have the privacy of their own room – I’m sure if you asked Jesuits to share rooms they would have a heart attack!  The Superior identified three themes for the triduum – a) Loving Trust, b) Total Surrender and c) Cheerfulness. She has also loaned me a copy of their constitutions to look at the passages on these themes.  Part III of the Constitutions, begins with a section called ‘Our Spirit’ which covers these three themes. So some of the things we have been sharing and praying about -

Trust – Is a key ‘disposition’ for those who aspire to hear the voice of God in the world.  Erik Erikson developed a theory of Psychological Development where he claims that all humans confront a set of ‘crises’ in their life.  Our personalities are formed depending on how we resolve these crises. The earliest crisis is one of basic trust or basic mistrust in the world. According to Erikson’s model (it’s just a model!) – this crisis often takes place at the first year of our life.  Trust opens us out to the world – mistrust makes us suspicious and cynical.  Radical Trust in God is embodied in people like Abraham, which is why he is so important to Judaism, Christianity and Islam –  the ‘Abrahamic Faith‘.  And trust is two-way – the forgiving trust that Jesus shows Peter, who is reinstated as the leader of the apostles, even after his multiple denial of Jesus, is an important touchstone for all of us who are honestly struggling with our weaknesses.

Surrender –  The paradox of surrender is that the total surrender to infinite love is one of the most empowering things that we can do with our life.  Crises and tragedies in our life can become moments of transforming grace because God speaks clearly to the broken-hearted.  For Catholics the unconditional ‘fiat’ of Mary at the Annunciation is one of the turning points of human history.  The emptying of self involved, on reflection, is awe-inspiring.  In our culture which prizes the individual and a celebrity subculture that inflates the ego – to empty one self in loving service is truly counter-cultural and hugely difficult in a time of unparalleled self-promotion. It is interesting how the desert becomes a place of encounter for God in the Bible – because in the desert we are stripped of luxuries and distractions.  The desert  becomes a special place of purification and preparation – and in Jesus’ case temptation.  His 40 days in the desert are portrayed in a fascinating way in Jim Crace‘s novel Quarantine.

Joy … tomorrow!

Building Community



I discovered a book yesterday called ‘Rekindling Community’ by Alistair McIntosh.  It is no 15 in the Schumacher Briefings,  named after the now deceased economist and ecologist E.F.Schumacher who published a very influential book in the 1970’s called ‘Small is Beautiful‘.  Inside I found this wonderful picture -


Listening v Hearing



Hearing (Photo credit: Keturah Stickann)

Nick Coleman is a Music Journalist/Critic, in love with many forms of music,  who writes passionately about musical taste, in short music has become his career and livelihood. One morning he woke up feeling dizzy, nauseous and soon had lost his hearing and was experiencing terrible tinnitus.  After battling with depression he has been able to teach himself to hear again.  He talked about his experience yesterday at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  A breakthrough moment for him was when he met the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, who said that to be able to hear again he had to start by remembering his favourite songs.  Through this he learnt that we hear with our brains much more  than our ears.  If you play someone some music and map their brain ‘waves’, then switch the music off  and wait for 15 minutes and ask them to remember the music, the pattern of brain waves is exactly the same.  Working on this Coleman has taught himself to hear again (in one ear) and been able to resume his career.

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Photo credit: raphaelstrada

Towards the end of the session he said, ‘Although I don’t hear like I used to, I listen more carefully, listening is hearing plus mind, I now appreciate music even more;’.  I have been mulling over this difference between hearing and listening.  In an age of an incredible amount of ‘noise’ it could be possible that we are losing our ability to listen because we hear so much.  The art of attentive listening is hugely important, it has a therapeutic value for the person being listened to, it counteracts the loneliness and isolation in modern life. Listening with the mind could also be a useful way to think about prayer or meditation.  When people talk to me about being frustrated with prayer,  getting distracted, I often suggest that some distractions may be worth paying attention to.  It could be that God, who calls us through our deepest desires can sometimes being trying to get through to us through what we classify as distractions.

Rediscovering the art of  attentive listening to each other and to God could be crucial.

The Power of Modern Saints


Blessed Miguel Pro SJ, one of the first martyrs to be caught on celluloid

It is often said that John Paul II canonized more saints that many previous popes put together.  Some have been critical of this, muttering about the lowering of standards, or cynical about the funds needed to set up a quick process for ‘a cause’ to be investigated.  Saint-making is easier, they claim,  for rich and powerful groups and religious orders who wish their founder or member to be elevated to the altars.  I feel that this criticism is often misguided, churlish and a little mean-spirited.  The desire of John Paul II to make saints that we could relate to in the modern world, that would make holiness an accessible and realistic goal was far-sighted and big-hearted. We all need inspiring role models to spur us on, especially in an age of dubious celebrity and a media that promotes a self destructive narcissism. It is great to be able to show youngsters powerful pictures of Blessed Miguel Pro SJ, being executed by Mexican authorities.  The picture, taken in the age of celluloid says this is not a legend, it is real, it is relevant, we can have a faith like his.

Todays saint Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz

Today’s memorial of St Maximilian Kolbe belongs to the same category.  Kolbe, the Franciscan, who offered to substitute his life for a condemned man’s in Auschwitz, is a modern saint, a martyr of the Nazi’s.  After a prisoner had escaped, 10 men were chosen to be put to death as revenge, when one of them pleaded that he was a family man, Fr or ‘Pate’ Kolbe offered to take his place, much to the amazement of the German Officer.  ‘Are you crazy’ he said – the ten men were locked up without food and water, as hostages to be released if the  I have discovered not only photo’s of Maximilian Kolbe (right), but also an interview with an Auchwitz survivor who was an eyewitness to Kolbe’s death.  Now living in Sweden, 88 year old Tadeusz Raznikiewicz  was recorded and translated by a fellow parishioner in Upsalla.  It lasts about twenty minutes and is absolutely absorbing listening. You can listen to it  by clicking on this link – Kolbe eyewitness interview –  the interview starts about 18mins into podcast. through the website ‘The Saint Cast’.

‘Saint Cast’  is produced by a remarkable man in America, Dr Paul Camarata.  He is a brain surgeon and a marathon runner, and somehow he finds time in between these activities  to make these podcasts about Saints. Although the ‘American’ style of the podcast is quite different to European ears – I love listening to these podcasts, in fact through ITunes you can download all the previous episodes.


Digital Vertigo


The Internet needs ‘saving’ from its current direction or we are heading into a digital nightmare of radical transparency and exhibitionism.  This was the basic theme presented at a fascinating discussion at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday evening as Andrew Keen was promoting and discussing his new(ish) book ‘Digital Vertigo’ .  Keen, now in his early fifties, is one of the pioneering generation of digital entrepreneurs who is expressing alarm at the direction the internet is taking, with particular criticism for Facebook, he warns us that we are entering an age of unprecedented exhibitionism, which will be damaging for many. Most of us in the audience were Digital Immigrants (i.e. we remember life before the internet!) unlike the younger generation of Digital Natives who will feel the full force of the agenda to socialise the internet.  According to Keen, Silicon Valley  has written off privacy as being something archaic.  My experience in recent years of working as a chaplain and a teacher was how important it is to encourage my students to use Facebook / Twitter / You Tube prudently.   They need to realise that by putting, drunken, half-naked photos onto social network sites they are making themselves hostages to fortune.  The world is assessing our identity by what we leave online and the internet doesn’t forget!  Future employers will be very interested in finding out as much as they can about who they are about to invest in.


Andrew Keen – a weary wisdom

Reflecting on the stimulating evening, I couldn’t help thinking about the idea of ‘structural sin’.  Facebook / Google claim that they are providing a public good, they are trying to change the world and there is a lot of powerful evidence that there is some truth in that (Arab Spring, Charity Fundraising, Linking Isolated communities).  However there is a lie at  the heart of the agenda,  Facebook is making huge amounts of money at selling our private data to companies, it is a profit driven organisation not a public good.  It seems to me that this exploits the worst vulnerabilities of adolescents as they attempt to build a circle of friends,.  As we all know, as we are growing up we make mistakes, we experiment with who we are we, what we stand for.  My generation of Digital Natives are fortunate because those mistakes, the embarrassing things we did or said were done in private and are forgotten about.  The internet does not forget and therefore (as the point was made excellently yesterday) can’t forgive.  If the internet doesn’t learn to forgive it will be a dystopia – rather than the utopia that the first wave of internet entrepeneurs envisaged and hoped for.

Yes you can live without Facebook!

The final thing I have found myself reflecting on is what was said about ‘confessional’ culture.  Little did Andrew Keen know that sitting in the audience was a Catholic Priest who had spent nearly 2 hours in the confessional this weekend. It seems that as we are a city-centre church people come from all over Edinburgh to use the confessional here, I have found it a vibrant and very consoling ministry.  But that private confession, one to one, with the inviolability of the seal, has a profoundly healthy and healing dynamic. The confessional, ‘all out there’ culture, cheered (and jeered) on by reality TV, Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle, is damaging and exploitative, and as more of us live ‘on’ line there is a danger that we become more self-revelatory.  This pressure towards inappropriate self-disclosure must be resisted, otherwise we are ultimately being made fools of (like Scotty in Hitchcock’s Vertigo hence the title of the book). So thank you Andrew Keen –  I found him full of a weary wisdom, but feel his analysis is important, pragmatic, and he probably wouldn’t like this but redolent with a disguised and reluctant compassion.  I am going to buy his book!




The Jesuit community here in Edinburgh is full to bursting this August as many guests come to stay.  Yesterday we had a very interesting arrival. Jake Martin is a Jesuit scholastic from the Chicago province, and has a week long stand up show at the Edinburgh Fringe called ‘Learning to Pray in front of the Television‘.  It has been interesting seeing the very healthy congregations here swell a little bit during the start of the festival, at communion time I have noticed a few actors, comedians and got to know a couple of producers who are all clamouring for attention during the festival. However I didn’t expect to see a Jesuit performing at the fringe – hats off to him, brave !  So I asked him to answer questions about his show – if you like the sound of it – come and support him! Or let your friends know about it (links below).

Anyway he has kindly answered three questions for us…

Why is the show called ‘learning to pray in front of the television’ ?

 Learning to Pray in Front of the Television was originally the title of a book I wrote which is being released this October, but the publishers didn’t like it as much as I did so they changed it; but when I decided to put a show up, I thought it was a great opportunity to use my awesome title.

The title fit for the book because it was a memoir (now titled What’s So Funny About Faith: A Memoir at the Intersection of Holy and Hilarious, Loyola Press) and I felt it summed up my childhood and the influence the media had on my faith development.  The show, on the other hand is part fiction, with some autobiographical parts, but television and the media still play a strong role in it.  As a matter of fact, the format of the show is set-up like a reality show, American Idol to be precise, (I know the UK had Pop Idol and The X Factor before it, but I’m a dumb American so American Idol is all I know) and the audience will vote at the end of the show as to whether or not I should be ordained a priest.

Jake Martin SJ – First Jesuit on the fringe?

Maybe you are the first ‘religious’ or Jesuit standup on the fringe what would you like to achieve?

I didn’t know I was the first Jesuit at the Fringe (and if I’m the first Jesuit, then I’m probably the first ‘religious’ period, since we always seem to be the first to move outside of the boundaries of the conventional religious.  I don’t have huge goals for the Fringe other than to hopefully perform for more than two people a night.  The important thing for me has already been done: I wrote a piece that I’m proud of and has a very particular point of view on faith and culture.

Who or what has inspired you to do this?

I did comedy back in Chicago for years and I always heard about the Fringe, it’s a huge deal to go in the States, but, of course, it costs a lot of money and it’s not exactly convenient time wise.  Two years ago I was finally able to attend with a group of high school students who were performing as a part of the American High School Theatre Fest which coincides with the Fringe and I just fell in love with the event.  It’s truly like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.  For an artist–especially a performing artist–it’s nirvana (I’m aware of the irony of that statement) and the sense of community and expression are remarkably life affirming.  It was an incredibly spiritual experience for me. I vowed (yes very religious-y phrasing I know) that I would someday come back and do my own show.  This year just happened to be the year that I got my act together and was able to get here.

Find out more about him in this Huffington Post article – click here

To book tickets for Jakes show – click here


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