Category: Books


Wolf Hall & Hagiophobia*

AMDG

tumblr_m9yucbzytr1r6bdhjo1_12801 *Hagiophobia,  I have just discovered is the fear of saints or Holy things…. ok so we are all familiar with Vampires cowering from crucifixes, or troubled by holy water, but I am thinking about a more subtle and perhaps more serious form of cultural hagiophobia.

Christopher Hitchens’ almost visceral hatred of Mother Teresa would be an example of this, his book the Missionary Position, is a classic case of a hatchet job.  But at least Hitchens described himself as a polemicist and was quite open about this.  However Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall and its sequels contain a more subtle but equally relentless character assassination of St Thomas More.  Her distorted and cruel caricature of one of the great figures of the Tudor times,  is a great calumny.

Mantel, raised a Roman Catholic and educated at convent school, has turned her back on the church of her youth with an unusual and unbalanced venom. In an interview in the Telegraph she said “ I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”  With the stroke of a pen she condemns 1.2 billion people.  At the time I remember reading many comments expressing relief that we have been saved from the ‘respectability’ that Mantel obviously craves.  And she has achieved that respectability in glorious fashion with back to back Booker Prizes and now wall-to-wall gushing praise for the BBC adaptation of her books.

utopia-thomas-more-paperback-cover-artThis leaves me very uneasy, as one of the biggest problems that a post-Christian culture faces is a cultural amnesia. A lack of historical grasp can be dangerous, repeating mistiakes and underpinning prejudices.  This portrayal of More as a zealous monster, and Cromwell the destroyer of the monasteries, as a hero, flies in the face of history.   This is important as so many of viewing the series will see this as history, my atheist sister after reading the books declared with a certain provocative pleasure – what an unpleasant character More was.  The vast majority of historians describe More as one of the intellectual greats of Europe, a renaissance man, the author of Utopia, great friend of Erasmus who worked for the reform of the church from the inside.  As the newspapers are full of gushing praise about Wolf Hall – they focus on the lavish production values, the great acting, its what the BBC does best, historical dramas – and I can see the producers eyes filling up with dollar signs as they anticipate the DVD box sales, and BBC Worldwide licks it lips anticipating the sales to foreign broadcasters.  The problem is the History Sucks – and we will be exporting it around the world and most people will be watching it as fact.

The series has just been reviewed on Thinking Faith 

AMDG

Pope-Francis-South-KoreaAs Pope Francis beatifies 124 martyrs from Korea today, with huge crowds turning out in Seoul to meet the Pope, it may be opportune to look at unique origins of the church in Korea.  Catholicism has grown rapidly in South Korea from 1% of the population ten years ago to over 10% now.  South Korea is a fascinating country that has seen rapid development and economic growth.  It is  the only country in the history of the world that has gone from being a foreign aid recipient to being a major foreign aid donor in only one generation.  It also has huge ‘soft power’ now, not only as the home of Samsung. and being a technology leader in many fields – but also in the popularity of their films, soap operas and music – Remember Gangnam Style? K-Pop has overtaken Japan’s J Pop as the music on the iphones in the Pacific Rim and further afield.  I remember when I was in the Philippines I would often ask the young people which country they  would most like to visit, and the answer universally wasn’t US, or the UK but South Korea.

The origins of the Catholic Church in Korea are fascinating.  Christianity has struggled to make inroads into Asia – and the exceptions – Philippines, East Timor which received Spanish and Portuguese missionaries,  the Korean Catholic Church grew for the first hundred years without any priests or visits from missionaries. Christianity was brought to Korea by a Korean diplomat who had encountered the books of Matteo Ricci in the court in Beijing.  Ricci is an incredible character, an Italian Jesuit, who missionary work was so successful that he gained access to the Forbidden City – the first westerner to do so.  His appreciation of Chinese culture and the peoples admiration of him as a learned scholar gave Ricci great inroads.  He was the first to translate Kong Fuzi’s teachings into Latin – thus coining the name Confucius – Ricci became a bridge between the east and the west.

ricciThe book that probably marks his greatest legacy was ‘The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ which argues that Confucianism and Christianity are not opposed and in fact are remarkably similar in key ways.  It was a way of explaining Christian doctrine into Confucian thought and proved to be very successful.  Ricci used this treatise in his missionary effort to convert Chinese intellectuals, men who were educated in Confucianism and the Chinese classics.   It was this book that brought Christianity to Korea in 1603, where it was to grow, without access to the sacraments, without any active priestly ministry.

AMDG

images (3)At the heart of the Second Week of the Exercises – is making an ‘election’ – i.e. answering the question how should I lead my life.  This can be a formal election, e.g. shall I marry this person, shall I make this career change, shall I enter religious life, or an informal election – shall I recommit myself to my work, shall I tweak this or tweak that i.e. should we be more focused on the poor etc.  The type and gravity of the election will dictate the time spent on it.   We can learn a lot from this process about decision making in general, even the day to day decision we make about what we invest our time and energy in.   What is brilliant about the exercises is that it creates the conditions of inner freedom and attentiveness that allow these decisions to be made on a sound footing.

Recent discoveries about how we make decisions – for good and for bad –  are fascinating but also echo certain movements already there in the exercises, which perhaps explaining how Ignatian Spirituality is growing in popularity and seems so relevant to so many people.   For instance the research of Nobel Prize winning Economist Daniel Kahneman is fascinating.  Counter intuitively Kahneman points out how so much of decision making process is not – rational.  For instance he talks about the difference between our remembering self and our experiencing self.  For instance we may enjoy a wonderful holiday for 12 days and then something happens at the end, a big blow up row with a companion,  a delay at the airport, an accident that ruins that last couple of days is what we remember.  So ignoring our experiencing self  ’12 days of happiness and relaxation’, we write the holiday off as a disaster.  Worryingly Kahnemann says that it is our remembering self that makes future decisions.

booksSimilarly when faced with a choice to make about the future, surprisingly maybe, fear seems to operate more effectively than hope. Specifically aversion to loss seems to operates much more strongly than the benefits that can accrue if we change. This is a significant barrier to inner freedom,  and can tie us down to the past, and it works even more strongly at an institutional level than it does at an individual level.   This ‘loss aversion’ – that the disadvantages of change loom larger than the advantages of change –  and the significance of our remembering self explain why Ignatius puts such a premium on ‘magnanimity’ and generosity of spirit as we enter the Exercises.  The disposition days are precisely to allow this inner freedom to grow before the retreat formally starts.  Remembering with gratitude is particularly important, and a grace that we pray for, knowing that we cannot do it on our own.

 

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