Driving into Manchester 10 days ago to drop off my stuff turned out to be a very eventful journey. My brother and I were riveted to the radio listening to the findings Independent Hillsborough report (click here). Many friends were involved in the crush at that Liverpool match in 1989, but thankfully no close friends were among the 96 who died, although we knew some of the victims. As has been known on Merseyside for a long while, but now thankfully by the rest of the world, the subsequent smearing of the fans could well be the biggest cover up in British history lead by South Yorkshire Police. However as is often the case, out of tragedy and suffering some good has come, including a solidarity with other fans, the beautiful gestures by United at Anfield on Sunday and dignified leadership by Alex Ferguson. So with mixed and strong emotions, my twin brother (an Evertonian) and I arrived in Manchester. The radio coverage was riveting but one thing that distracted our attention was driving past a huge video screen that was offering a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a man called Dale Cregan.
Three days later this man, whose face seemed to be all over Manchester, shot dead two unarmed policewomen and then walked into a police station to give himself up. Acts of wanton destruction and evil like this are always disorienting and confusing. After a week of anger towards the police for the Hillsborough cover-up, these killings put policing back into perspective. It is unprecedented for two police women to be killed, and the worst police deaths since the 60′s. But again amidst all the shock, healing started to happen from an unusual source. The Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police in an interview talked about how his faith was helping him. This is what Sir Peter Fahy, a Catholic, said
“I think a lot of us feel passionately that policing is a vocation. It is a calling. I feel that in terms of my own faith but I know a lot of officers that don’t have a faith, but feel exactly the same – that it is a vocation, that it’s not just a job and I think that’s almost what you go back to in difficult times and difficult circumstances that how unfair something may feel, how inadequate you may feel you do actually rely on that you’re doing your best, and that this is your vocation. The chance for me personally to be able to, every day, to have bit of quiet time, pray, think about your own values, your own sense of vocation, and to examine your own conscience I think is really, really important…… For me personally and a lot of people of faith, prayer is important… you do often feel so helpless, so praying for the dead officers, praying for their families, becomes your own reaction, your own expression of hope really for them, at a time of great need.”
Very powerful words – particularly at a time when there strong pressures to silence the religious voice in the public sphere, or to portray faith as being the realm of bigots and fundamentalists. It also made me think – would the interview have been picked up elsewhere in the country or is this a fruit of the BBC relocation to Salford? There is much to reflect on what he said about the healing power of prayer, but maybe more importantly what he also said about examining your conscience. If only more of the South Yorkshire Police had engaged in that activity more regularly.
In the UK there is undoubtedly a wonderful feel-good factor at the end of a horrendously wet summer. There is a big discussion about what the legacy of the summer should be. For me the big difference has been how positive the media has been. Many people have commented on how the newspapers, TV, radio and now the internet should be reflecting news not creating news. The reality is there is a complex relationship between reporting the news and commenting on the news, on reflecting opinion and forming opinion. With the Jubilee and the Olympics the media ‘got on board’ and have had a huge role in the feel good factor. For once optimism and hope has replaced cynicism and for me this is the legacy of the Games. I often have though wouldn’t it be great if we could launch a mainstream, national, good news paper. Not avoiding what is happening in the world, but at least balancing the bad news with good news. There is a magazine called ‘The Week’ which gives a summary of the week’s news and how it has been reported. I enjoy reading it, but my favourite bit is a tiny section inside the front page called ‘It wasn’t all bad’ with an inspiring good news story for the week. Useful for talks, speeches or homilies!
The most powerful news agent in the UK is the BBC. I am a big fan of the ‘Beeb’ , the quality of its programmes, podcasts are world-class. So when I have been abroad I often boast about the BBC. However earlier this year when I was in the Philippines, a very smart and sophisticated young man listened to me politely and then very gently pointed out to me how they consider the BBC to be anti-Christian. I was shocked but could see the arguments he made, it was interesting to see how popular Al Jazeera was becoming there. Mark Thompson, the Jesuit-educated outgoing director general of the BBC has recently admitted so. In an interview about how the BBC represents religion (click here) he said that at least in the UK, Christianity was treated as being more ‘broad shouldered’ than other religions which are much more identified with ethnic minorities. He makes a compelling point – however I think that sometimes an excellent desire for ‘tolerance’ can be distorted, and much of the liberal-elite group think that dominates the UK establishments is reflected in a prejudice against Christianity. How the news is reported and commented on is important it should try to represent the whole of the country not just metropolitan elites and their incestuous media cities. This summer the collective power of the media has played a huge role in the feel-good factor, that should be the real legacy as we head into an autumn of strikes, squabbles and X Factor!
Below is a small excerpt of Mark Thompson’s interview – click here for the full length.
In a world that is driven by the cult of the beautiful there are many reasons to be amazed and excited about the unprecedented attention given to the Paralympics. We are so often bombarded by aspirational images and messages of unobtainable perfection, it is amazing to see images of swimmer Ellie Simmonds who was born with achondroplasia or ‘dwarfism’ where there where would normally be photoshopped models. I am visiting London at the moment, and had a spare couple of hours yesterday to visit the Olympic Park (although I couldn’t get in!) and snapped this picture. The closer you got – the more the enthusiasm and positivity of the crowd grew, the enthusiasm and good will was infectious. My sister took her young daughters to an unforgettable night at the Olympic Stadium the other night and told me they will never forget seeing an athlete with no hands cartwheel in joy on to the podium to receive their gold medal. What an experience for a young mind to savour!
The medal table currently has China way out in front with Great Britain edging second place in front of Russia. It has to be a good thing for disabled people in both China and Russia that the Paralympics is taken so seriously in their countries. China’s cruel one child policy and infanticide can only be challenged by embracing this festival of imperfection. Hopefully here in Britain, where children can be aborted up to birth if there is any proof of ‘abnormality’ e.g a cleft lip, the Paralympics may lead to a change in culture to. It would be wonderful to see some of the Paralympic superstars speak out on this. Why do the Americans not seem that interested? It is not being shown on US TV, and they are only sixth in the medal table. Strange? Maybe it is in the US where the cult of perfection is most virulently propagated. Ultimately this is a festival of hope – that our brokeness can be beautiful, and our weakness can be turned into strength most powerfully through the grace of love and support. This hope is brilliantly expressed through this Canadian Advert.
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.”
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.
What a difference a month makes, Andy Murray on the same court against the same opponent seemed to be a different person yesterday. It has been called the fastest redemption story in sport. Murray, often seen as moody, has been smiling, having fun and playing with a freedom and a ‘lightness’ that he didn’t seem to have at the Wimbledon tournament. He has clearly thrived over the past week not being such a focus for national attention as during the Wimbledon fortnight. Being part of a team and being inspired by others – he has said he is so glad to be part of Team GB and is motivated by the other athletes. What is the difference? I think it is that he was not just playing for himself but for something bigger than him. It reminds me of that beautiful line in EP 4 ‘And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him‘ . It is also beautiful – that in a sport, with huge amounts of money, pressure, were everything is oriented to the individual with a huge entourage around them – it is the Olympics, with no direct monetary award, and where Murray is one of many great British athletes…. it is this environment that has brought the best out of him.
Ignatius describes the phenomenon of spiritual consolation in a similar way – anything that opens us to the world, fills us with peace, joy, freedom – allows us to fulfill our potential can be a sign of consolation. When we are basically focused on something greater than ourselves. The opposite, desolation, leads us in on ourselves, to self doubt, apathy, cynicism. This is speaking very generally of course and in the spiritual life consolation and desolation can be much more subtle than that (i.e. If an evil tyrant had self doubt it might be a path to consolation!) Ignatius talks about consolation in a much more focused and religious way – here are his words:
“ I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”
Whereas desolation leads to “ the opposite of (consolation), as darkness of soul, torment of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”
The incredible scenes at the Olympics these days – the joy, the support of the crowds, the adulation was so powerful, particularly of your are British. Working with boys the last few years I have seen with my own eyes how sport can ‘save them’ from lives on the streets in gangs. Coaching football I know how sport can give them meaning and discipline, so it is wonderful to see how Andy Murray, Jessica Ennis and the rest can be such positive role models. But even the roar of the crowd, the glamour of gold fades away. The love, so powerfully expressed in the stadium, is nothing compared to the patience of their families and friends as they embark on the discipline of training and single-mindedness of an elite athlete. There are striking scenes here too in Edinburgh as the Fringe Festival begins, we are being bombarded with flyers and posters – it can get a bit much. It feels like there is too much attention seeking – look at me! Come to my show! On the other hand there is great energy and creative talent – it is exciting. Careers will be launched, shows will be commissioned, and these shows and personalities will have a big impact on our culture and televisions over the next years. Seeing the pictures of comedians on the posters is revealing… we live in a golden age of comedy …. some of these people are starting to sell out football stadiums / becoming wealthy beyond their dreams as they sell their DVD box sets. Some of the comedy is no more than mockery, mean spirited, angry and cynical but some of the most popular stuff isn’t – its observational, balanced, self- deprecating, not nasty. However both the athletes and the comedians will find the adulation fades. So again what lasts?
In this week of great Olympians, the church has quietly celebrated three of its own Olympians. If you came to daily mass you know who I am talking about. Our own St Ignatius on Tuesday, the founder of the Jesuits, in whose ‘Spiritual Exercises’ many people, kings, queens, writers, poets, and normal people like you and me, have changed our lives for the better. On Wednesday we remembered St Alphonsus Liguori – the founder of the Redemptorists, who changed the hearts and minds of so many young slum dwellers all over the world and then on Saturday we remembered St Jean Vianney – patron of parish priests. To whom 20,000 people a year would visit and make their confession to. They would travel on pilgrimage from all over Europe, long before the days of Ryan Air….. They too are role models, but their legacy is much longer, more than gold it endures.
Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life (Todays Gospel)
Some of the most powerful images for me so far in the Olympics have been in the pool. The rapid turn over of races, the excitement and the beauty of some of the slow-mo’s is quite gripping. The commentary and punditry on the BBC is also top-class. The other day we were told how Michael Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian of all times, trains using his imagination. In a previous games he had won a gold medal in a race in spite of his goggles leaking. Obviously this would seriously affect your vision and could upset your concentration. When so many races are won by hundredths of seconds how did he cope with this distraction and still win? We were told that his training covered all bases including this eventuality. In fact a key part of his training was to use the power of his imagination, and totally immerse himself in the race-day atmosphere. He trains to hear, feel, the water. the atmosphere with incredible detail – so that when something unexpected happens, i.e. leaky goggles, it has no disruption and those vital split-seconds aren’t lost. I was watching this with two other Jesuits, and as he said this, we all turned to one another and simultaneously said ‘Composition of Place’ .
‘Composition of Place’ is a technique that Ignatius uses in his imaginative contemplations and we are trained in. When you enter a contemplation, usually from a scene in the Gospel, you imagine yourself in the scene, either as a bystander or a protagonist. You ‘apply the senses’ so that you can smell, hear, see as much detail in your imagination as possible. This allows a deep entry into the contemplation and often ends up in a conversation or a ‘colloquy’ with Christ, or whoever is in the scene. The power of ’visualisation’ is often banded about, ‘visualising success’ etc – and I think a lot of it is nonsense and can lead to complacency, as sense of entitlement and under achievement. However Phelps was using ‘composition of place’ as part of an incredibly thorough preparation. Surely a coincidence? Well maybe not – yesterday I was sent this article from an American journal the Catholic Review – called ’Jesuit schools influence Olympic Swimming‘ click here. Written before the Beijing Games – the gist of it is, that the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC), where Phelps began training and has now returned to was created by two alumni from Loyola Blakefield, Towson, and then Loyola College in Maryland. The article suggests that the rigor applied by their Jesuit education is reflected in the training environment that has turned Phelps into what most experts agree is the greatest swimmer of all time. “The Jesuit schools thought that they were more mentally and physically up to the task than some of the competition,” said founder Murray Stephens, “We were dedicated to the sense of skill and hard repetition that it took to master something.” The motto of the NBAC :
The awards of youth are soon forgotten, but the qualities learnt through the disciplined pursuit of excellence will last a lifetime.
Who said spirituality wasn’t practical?
P.S. Whilst I am on the Jesuit educated swimmers theme – Missy Franklin (Regis Jesuit High School, Denver) also seems to be doing well – and claims that her Kairos retreat experience early this year was one of the best experiences of her life click here
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.
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.