Category: History


AMDG

Amazon.com arguably is changing the world now more than Google or Facebook.  The online retailer is now more akin to a conglomerate, having long left behind just being a place to go and buy books. Now it is the world’s leading provider of cloud computing, this year it will spend twice as much on television as HBO, a cable channel, and developing its own range of Amazon-brand physical products including batteries, almonds, suits and speakers linked to a virtual voice-activated assistant.  This last product, Alexa, has a ‘must-buy’ buzz around it, many of my friends got it for Christmas. Alexa can control, among other things, your lamps and sprinklers, ‘she’ is your own digital personal assistant. However, before I start pontificating about the technological dystopia we are heading into, at least we can acknowledge that Alexa has some theological literacy as this great story shows.

Of course, the ‘tech-lash’ is just beginning, with grave concerns about Amazons growing dominance, it being both marketplace and retailer has an anti-competitive feel about it, and its ability to steamroll future regulators is worrying.  However more than the other tech giants, I think to understand Amazon you look no further than its intense bordering on sociopathic founder.  One of the most disruptive companies, it has been dreamt up and run by one of the ‘disrupters in chief’ Jeff Bezos. It’s revealing that the original name he dreamed up for his company was Relentless.com, in fact if you put that into Google you are taken directly to Amazon.   That one word, relentless, says something about Bezos that explains his success but also sums up something about his unsettling dark side.

I have recently finished reading a fascinating book, ‘The everything store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon‘.  The author Brad Stone has done a good job portraying the strength of this character – his unbounded drive and ambition, his unnerving search for truth at whatever expense. Stone recounts one incident which sums this up and is chilling and compelling. He describes how Bezos publicly humiliated one of his senior execs by calling Amazon’s number during a team meeting, in front of his colleagues, to check the man’s assertion that its phones were being picked up promptly. “Bezos took his watch off and made a deliberate show of tracking the time. A brutal minute passed, then two … Bezos’s face grew red; the vein in his forehead, a hurricane warning system, popped out”

What I found most poignant about the book was the narrative around his two fathers. His biological father was a circus unicyclist, Ted Jorgensen, who abandoned his mother when he was only one. His stepfather was a Cuban-American Miguel Bezos who was rescued from Cuba by a scheme sponsored by the Catholic Church, ‘Operation Pedro Pan’.  From December 1960 to October 1962, more than fourteen thousand Cuban youths arrived alone in the United States, it was the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.  It puts the current British governments’ paltry response to the refugee crisis to shame.  Miguel Bezos left the Jesuit school (that, ironically, Fidel Castro had also attended) and was relocated and educated in the United States under the leadership of a young Irish priest, Fr Bryan O Walsh.   The Diocese of Miami organised the program created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination.  O’ Walsh died in 2001  and was an old boy of the Crescent, the Jesuit school in Limerick.

When you hear the backstory of his stepfather, meticulously researched by Brad Stone, you get an insight into this relentless drive. The stable and aspirational background Miguel and his mother gave him, with a strong awareness that all could be taken away from them at any stage. However most poignant, for me reading the book, was the courage it took the now famous Jeff Bezos to track down his real father – maybe it is that wound of abandonment that explains his uncompromising search for truth. Jeff Bezos is a disruptive leader and Amazon has ripped up the retailer’s rulebook in many ways.  Not least because it was the first online company to allow hostile reviews of products that it sold.  Relentless and truth at any cost – but perhaps driven by deep and disruptive events in his own childhood.

The Crown Renews Itself

AMDG

If you are interested in how ancient institutions reform or renew themselves a fascinating case study is the British Monarchy. Currently the House of Windsor is being intriguingly interpreted in the Netflix series ‘ The Crown‘.  I have just enjoyed finishing the second series written as always by Benedictine-educated Peter Morgan. With each new series being released in December it seems to have become a Christmas tradition.  Just in case you don’t know, it follows the life of Elizabeth II, and how this unfolds alongside the history of the UK in the last century.  Written by one of the best screenplay writers in the business, beautifully shot including with some fine acting – it is fast becoming an annual treat.  Like all good drama, it touches on so many themes from our own lives, moral character, love, power, pride, hubris… etc – but essentially it shows the incredible capacity for this ancient institution to adapt to modern times, without giving too much ground (RC Church anyone?).  Morgan skillfully ensures that these explorations into the private lives of royalty never strays into sensationalism although he treads a very fine line at times.

As Santayana warns us about history repeating itself, the themes it deals with are surprisingly ‘contemporary’. In the first series, there is a fascinating programme that covers the Great Smog in London that killed thousands of people and led to the clean air act  …..  In the current series, Elizabeth’s uncle and former King, Edward,  is exposed as having a flirtation with Hitler and fascism that feels all too real in our volatile times.  Fascinatingly, this particular episode is inter-weaved with a story about Billy Grahams first visit to the UK.  The American evangelist is portrayed as making a big impression on the young Queen, his moral clarity giving her the strength to effectively banish her erstwhile uncle Edward.

Part of my conscience does sting a little bit when I think of a 91-year-old Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor sitting at home surrounded by corgies in front of the TV,  whilst her life is being interpreted and distributed around the world.   In an age of self-promotion and carefully curated public images, it takes an impressive detachment from her, not to publically comment on these things, or resist the temptation to set the record right. However, I think it is essentially a compassionate portrayal of Elizabeth.  Morgan himself takes the line that the series is always accurate even if it is impossible to be ‘truthful’. His point is that no-one knows what was said between Elizabeth and Philip on this day at this time, but with his team of historical researchers, he believes they can produce an accurate representation. That leads to another moral discussion, certainly, the BBC would never be able to make a series like The Crown.

It is also interesting hearing Peter Morgan talk about how it is a golden-age for writers…. with companies like Netflix generously investing in such projects and not interfering too much with the creativity of the writers.  I suppose the streaming model is another example of a ‘disruptive technology’ getting rid of all the vested interests of producers, cinemas etc.  They might get booed by the old-guard at Cannes, but it means that for talent such as Morgan – the creative process seems to have become much cleaner.

AMDG

Pedro-Arrupe-at-prayer11

Fr Pedro Arrupe

I have been enjoying a few days in Valladolid with a group of Jesuit theologians who are preparing for ordination. They are taking part in what is called the ‘Arrupe Month’. Fr Pedro Arrupe, then the general of the Jesuits,  noticed that in the 1970’s there was a curious phenomenon of men who left the order (and often the priesthood) soon after they had been ordained.  It was almost as though even after the long period of formation they were expecting something magic to happen – and had a rather superficial expectation of what the ‘ontological change’ that the sacrament of ordination conferred, really meant.   So Fr Arrupe’s letter issued on December 27, 1979 addressed this – and now there is  a period set aside for a deepening of self-knowledge and Jesuit identity to help prepare the Jesuit Scholastic for ordination to the priesthood. I have joined them for a couple of days to give some input on thriving in (not just surviving) the first years of priesthood.

PictureWe are staying at a fascinating and beautiful College – the Royal English College ‘St Albans’ in Vallodalid.  It was founded by the English Jesuit Robert Persons in 1589, during the English Reformation, as a seminary to train Catholic Priest for the English and Welsh Mission, at a time when it was illegal to do so in the UK.  It has an impressive legacy of alumni who are saints – many Jesuits,  although not all – who would eventually be executed on their return to Britain.   Their portraits line the corridors.  In today’s climate of Islamic violence we have to be careful about the narrative of martyrdom – although it is worth noting that none of the Catholic men and women executed were perpetrators of Violence.  Although it fair to say that Fr Persons was agitating the Spanish King to invade so that England could return to becoming a Catholic country. This  resulted firstly in the famous failure of the Armada.  A second attempt was foiled in Cadiz by Walter Raleigh ….  but we will come to that in a minute.  The College, well endowed, and beautifully kept, still has the patronage of the Spanish Royal Family.  When you enter the college you are greeted with a picture of the King & Queen of Spain with an affectionate and personal message to the College. This Royal patronage is important when you think of how the Jesuits where expelled from Europe, from different countries on numerous occasions, so you can see how it is good to know you have powerful allies ….  things can change however.

44423190For me the jewel in the crown in Valladolid is ‘La Vulnerata’ or the Wounded One  – a disfigured statue of Mary in the chapel.  After Sir Walter Raleigh defeated the Spanish Fleet in Cadiz and took control of the city in 1596,  some of the English troops started a riot (like the football ‘fans’ in Marseille). The soldiers dragged the statue  to the market square where they desecrated it.  The priests and seminarians of the English College in Valladolid brought it to Valladolid and installed with great solemnity in the College Chapel in 1600.  They wished to make reparation for the desecration of their fellow country men.  Every year during Holy Week the statue is processed along the street, where it is met by a huge paso or float, which has a large depiction of the Crucified Christ resting on top of it. The two images meet, and dance to each other for a brief period—then the Vulnerata comes back to the College

gress-CZESTOCHOWA-650x340A little like the famous Image of the Icon of the Black Madonna of Czetochowa which was similarly damaged by Hussite raiders in 1430… and has now become the most visited shrine in Poland, and revered by Catholics and Orthodox alike.  The potential power of our vulnerabilty is a spiritual paradox.  Christ glorious risen body still carried his wounds as St Thomas can testify. The popular devotion to these disfigured images of Our Lady are striking – they seem to unlock a mysterious power in peoples hearts. Many people point to John Paul II visits to Czetochowa as the start of the fall of communism, how this icon of the suffering Poland and the first Polish Pope drew millions together in defiance of the authorities.  Pope Francis will be visiting next week during the world Youth Day  celebrations,  I hope the Queen of Poland draws the 2 million young people expected to attend, to her heart.