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.