My Photo
Location: United States

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Francis Thompson

Speaking of poetry, America Magazine has an article about a very interesting Victorian era poet - Francis Thompson. Here is a poem by Thompson (best known for his poem Hound of Heaven), then a bit of what Wikipedia says of him, and under that, some of the article ...

In No Strange Land

The kingdom of God is within you

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air--
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!--
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places--
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry--and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry--clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!


Francis Thompson (December 18, 1859 – November 13, 1907) was an English poet and ascetic. After attending college, he moved to London to become a writer, but in menial work, became addicted to opium, and was a street vagrant for years. A married couple read his poetry and rescued him, publishing his first book, Poems in 1893. Francis Thompson lived as an unbalanced invalid in Wales and at Storrington, but wrote over 3 books of poetry, with other works and essays, before dying of tuberculosis in 1907 .... - read more about him at Wikipedia


Below are some excerpts from the America article The Poet of the Return to God by Patricia Schnapp, R.S.M. ...


Thompson has largely been consigned to moldering books on unused library shelves. Today’s readers probably find him too Byzantine and archaic. Yet since 2007 is the centenary year of Thompson’s death at age 47, it seems an appropriate time to reconsider this talented and tragic minstrel. For one thing, his “Hound of Heaven” is one of the great religious odes of modern times, having been praised by such diverse writers as Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, Eugene O’Neill and James Dickey. For another, his poetry, sensuous and lush as it is, radiates a profound Catholic spirituality. Thompson’s work illustrates the power of a religious vision to permeate the consciousness so intimately that it transforms the natural world into a realm of allegory, symbol and metaphor ....

Thompson’s poetic sensibilities were largely shaped by the great Romantics, especially Shelley, whom he deeply admired. And with Shelley, Thompson shared not just an obvious love of nature, but an intensity of emotion as well, which gave his poetry a sense of breathless urgency.

This intensity resulted at least partly from Thompson’s struggle with ill health (and his consequent addiction to laudanum) from his late 20’s until his death. Thompson also lived with the abiding sense that his unique talent had itself in some way effected a double failure in his life; he had left the seminary at Ushaw with his father’s hopes of a priestly life for him frustrated, and he had failed in the final examinations at medical school ....

In Thompson’s mission to harmonize the worlds of nature and religious faith, he frequently returns to his favorite source of metaphor and allegory—the sun. This is not surprising, for it had been the sun that occasioned in him a profound religious experience while staying in a monastery in 1888 to recover from opium addiction. Standing before a life-size crucifix in a field, Thompson watched the extraordinary beauty of the setting sun and felt a rebirth within himself of both his poetic gifts and his relationship with Christ. At the same time, he recognized in the setting sun and its promise of rebirth a mystical symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection. Consequently, the sun became the supreme symbol in the world of Thompson’s poetry, as it is the supreme material force in the world.

This inexhaustible warehouse of imagery for Thompson reflects the great mystery of his faith, as when he writes in “Ode to the Setting Sun”:

Thou dost image, thou dost follow
That King-Maker of Creation...
Thou art of Him a type memorial ...

And in this centenary year of his death, Catholics everywhere, but especially in the English-speaking world, should take the occasion to revisit and celebrate the poetry of Francis Thompson. For, as Joseph Husslein wrote in the introduction to Terence Connolly’s 1944 biography of Thompson, “His spirit knocked at heaven’s gate….”


Read more of Thompon's poems here

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


I think I mentioned before that I look forward each year to getting a new calendar ... here's the January picture from my new one ...

... this is a photo of an old Breton garden, whose doorways frame a wood-burning bread oven at the far end.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Mark 5:41

- “Little girl, I say to you, arise!”

Sunday, January 28, 2007


The post below on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness kept me wondering about the subject, and I thought I'd post a little more on it. When I was in college, one of my philosophy teachers had us read The Grand Inquisitor by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The Grand Inquisitor is a parable told by Ivan to Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). Ivan and Alyosha are brothers; Ivan a committed atheist, while Alyosha a novice monk ..... The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive questions by Alyosha. In the tale, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. Jesus performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize Him and adore Him, but He is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in His cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why His return would interfere with the mission of the church.

The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three questions Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom. The Inquisitor thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature, though. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. Thus, he implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed humanity to suffer ...
- Wikipedia

The Grand Inquisitor goes on to tell Jesus that now the Church offers the people what he would not ... miracle (turning stones to bread), mystery (having the angels save hin from a leap off the temple), and authority (eartly rule). When I first read The Grand Inquisitor, I was pretty impressed, and it still affects me - Jesus offers freedom, and jerk that I am, I want miracle, mystery, and authority :-(

Read The Grand Inquisitor online at Project Gutenberg

And there's an iteresting article on the subject - The Ethical and Structural Significance of the Three Temptations in The Brothers Karamazov

- 16th century master illuminator Simon Bening's depiction of the devil approaching Jesus with a stone to be turned into bread

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More on Piergiorgio Welby and Gay Parents Adopting

I saw a couple of articles in this week's Tablet that address subjects I've mentioned in past posts, so I thought I'd do a little updating.

One of the past posts was about a Tablet article - A life too burdensome by John J. Paris, S.J. - which addressed the death through euthanasia of Piergiorgio Welby, and the Church's refusal of a funeral. Today, the Tablet has another article on the same subject, this time about Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini's take on it. Here's a little of the article - Martini weighs into Welby row .....

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini has called on the Church to be "more attentive" to how it responds to situations involving the "end of the life of a gravely ill person", saying that the "will of the patient, in as much as he is competent, must not be overlooked". His words - which appeared in a full-page article last Sunday in the Milan-based Il Sole 24 Ore - were widely interpreted as a criticism of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who last month ruled out a church funeral for a quadriplegic who had asked doctors to switch off the artificial respirator that had kept him alive for nine years ..... The cardinal, who has been undergoing treatment for Parkinson's disease, indicated that a patient had a major role in "judging whether treatments being proposed, in such a case of exceptional gravity, were effectively proportionate" to the result. He said that because of new technology, wisdom was needed in order "not to prolong life when it is no longer to a person's benefit" ....

The other past post was about the negative Catholic reaction to gays adopting childrenby through a San Francisco Catholic run charity. The article that's on a similar subject in this week's Tablet is A love found wanting by Anglican priest Fr. Martin Reynolds, about gays being refused in attempting to adopt children in the UK. Here below is a bit of the article ...

This week, the Catholic Church stated that its adoption agencies would have to close if the Government forced them to accept applications from gay couples. Here, a gay Anglican priest describes how he and his Catholic partner took on a child and why they wish to do so again.

We are a family with mixed religious backgrounds. Chris, my partner of 27 years, is a Roman Catholic and I am an Anglican priest. Our son is 19 now and preparing for college. We first got to know him 15 years ago, and for 10 years we were respite carers, with him staying with us for a third of his time. Then five years ago his family relationships broke down. He came to live with us permanently and we became his long-term foster carers. He is a wonderful lad whose severe learning difficulties and behavioural problems are but a tiny part of that whole person we have come to love with all our hearts .....

While he has been preparing himself to start going to college in September our son has said that the one thing he wants more than anything else when he comes home are brothers and sisters. Chris and I were taken aback by this but, after a lot of thought and seeing how great he is with younger children in the family, we decided to try .....

When we telephoned our local Catholic agency, the St David's Children Society in Cardiff, we explained our circumstances truthfully. The receptionist told us that they did not accept gay couples as adopters. To be turned down without even being asked your name, seems, in the circumstances, rather a harsh dismissal .....

This is not an argument with two sides. This is not a debate between Catholic rights and gay rights - this is about very vulnerable children, thousands of them, waiting in inappropriate conditions for a loving family to help mend broken hearts. Many of these kids have disabilities - many have been in as many as 20 and more different short-term placements .....

And what of us? We have already had mentioned to us a couple of children who have such profound disabilities that they will never know the gender, yet alone the sexuality of the loving parents they need. They cannot see nor hear and will only know love from the tender way they are cared for. If only the Church could know this love.

As yuo would expect, if you've read my earlier posts, I agree with Cardinal Martini that the feelings of the ill patient should be considered in their desire to stop treatment, and I agree also with Fr. Reynolds that the homosexuality of prospective parents should not automatically disqualify them from adopting children.

Monday, January 22, 2007


A friend's cat died today and it reminded me of my cat Data, who died a year ago (the 19th). I thought of posting something about him, then thought better of it, but now ... I've been reading a book by James Alison - Knowing Jesus. There's a part in the beginning where he talks about what it's like when you have a relationship with someone and they die. He says the relationship's over because it's no longer mutaul ... that idea makes me sad.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Second Life and St. Ignatius

What is real? Waht is virtual? Can something be both virtual and real? I think St. Ignatius of Loyola would say yes.

This week's Tablet has an intertesting article by John McDade SJ that touches on the impact of illusion on our true selves ... he contrasts the effect of presently existing virtual worlds (like Second Life), with the virtuality of the imaginative prayer of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises.

If like me you're a fan of science fiction, you'e familiar with the idea of lived virtual reality ... think William Gibson's Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Maybe it's that familiarity that makes me optimistic about use of virtual reality, secualr as well as religious ... Fr. McDade is more cautious.

Here below is a bit of the article - Mine Is The Kingdom. I had to do quite a bit of chopping, so best to read the whole thing ...


In this article, I want to raise some questions about the relation between illusions, or if you prefer the term, "virtual reality", and religion.

We are shaped by the outer world intermingling with our inner world - that, after all, is how children develop and why horror films terrify us. We are all marshalled by the outer world in ways that connect with patterns in our nature to the point where "inner" and "outer" are indistinguishable. Using the eye as a metaphor for this contact, Jesus says in the gospel of Luke: "Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but if the eye is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness" (Luke 11: 34-5).

Darkness, Jesus seems to say, can come into us and fill us: darkness without, once admitted, resonates with darkness within, and, as he points out, we are potentially such deluded creatures that this very darkness can seem to be filling us with "light". But read his contrasting teaching in the Gospel of Mark, that what defiles us is not what comes into us from outside, but what comes forth from the heart: "for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts ... " (Mark 7: 20f). The picture emerges that what comes to be dominant in a person has a double source: coming from outside, it is internalised and may come to govern us because it connects with something in our nature; coming from inside, it presses for expression through the body and the social and cultural world. Everything in our cultural world has natural roots and it is the way it is because we are the way we are and vice versa. Nature and culture are mutually reinforcing.

Why do these reflections matter? Because we are now living in a cultural context of such power that its constructs are internalised rapidly and painlessly without our being aware that this is taking place. The capacity of digital culture to blur image and reality targets our innate susceptibility to what is unreal ....

Visit a website called Second Life, an online digital world, imagined, created and owned by its residents, which presents itself as a "metaverse", a user-defined world. Here users create animated avatars, imaged versions of themselves - usually as humans, sometimes as imaginary creatures. The number of registered users is 2.3 million, up from 100,000 in early 2006, making Second Life a worldwide cyber phenomenon. It is growing at 20 per cent a month. "We are competing with the real world", said one of its founders, "to create a better place for your mind to live." .....

Perhaps the meaning-giving function of religion at a popular level is being replaced by digital versions of the real. At many stages in the Church's life, Christianity must have functioned as the parallel, image-laden version of life, its possibilities and terrors, the "metaverse" that peopled the cosmos with images of heaven and hell, and invited participation in a cosmic drama of the end-time. Now, when sensual fulfilment can be ravishingly portrayed digitally, when cosmic battles with unmatched horrors can be engaged in in the hour after supper, do we really need to think about dull things like an impending heaven and hell?

Several questions are worth pondering. Can the flourishing of our nature through virtues and connectedness to the absolute truth and love, which God is, be seriously impaired by the "metaverses" imagined by the self? Might the features of transcendence in our nature be diverted, redirected, modified, diminished and perhaps effectively quashed by the imagined world that we internalise almost addictively? Can the self become dependent on the unreal? The answer to these three questions would be clearly yes.

Imagination always matters, for good and ill. In the Ignatian spiritual tradition, it has a central role in enabling the person to become stimulated in relation to the truth of our condition and the revelatory visitation of God in Christ. Think, for example, of the meditations in the Spiritual Exercises on how the Trinity contemplates the state of the world that needs an Incarnate Saviour, the imaginative entry into the Nativity and Crucifixion of Christ and the contemplation of God labouring in all things. Through imaginative contemplation I am to visit these dramatic religious "sites" with the aim of orienting my real self towards Jesus who is God's self-imaging, his avatar or epiphany in our created order .....

I will end with two remarks which I think are increasingly incisive in relation to our present circumstances: the first is that "God is missing and is not missed". Many people now live in a desacralised landscape in which God is not mentioned, but in which digital versions of reality are increasingly pervasive: these features are not unrelated. The second comes from Simone Weil: "Idolatry is a vital necessity in the cave". Picking up Plato's image of the cave in which we have access only to projected images of the real, she judges that the worship of false gods in which we invest our attention is only to be expected. The principal issue for human beings, as the Bible repeatedly tells us, is idolatry by which the self constructs its imagined avatars. Of course, in a desacralised age, the idols that we worship will not be called "God" but will be simply those we create and to which we become addicted.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Gods and Monsters

- Fraser and McKellen

This week's movie rental was Gods and Monsters, a film starring Brendan Fraser, Ian McKellen, and Lynn Redgrave, directed by Bill Condon, and with, as executive producer, horror novelist Clive Barker. A brief summary by Wikipedia ...

Gods and Monsters is a 1998 film which recounts the (somewhat fictionalized) last days of the life of troubled film director James Whale, whose homosexuality is a central theme ..... The movie was adapted ... from the novel The Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram .... The film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ian McKellen) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lynn Redgrave). The film features reconstructions of the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, a movie Whale directed. The title comes from a line in Bride of Frankenstein.

I rented the movie partly because I'm a fan of Brendan Fraser :-) but also because there's something about horror that's been speaking to me lately. The outsider-ness and despair which are part of the horror genre can be glimpsed in this film through the sadness of Frankenstein and also perhaps that of James Whale. And it didn't hurt that Clive Barker was involved (I've not been able to get through one of his stories, they're so creepy!).

Here's the beginning of a review of the movie by Roger Ebert ...

"Gods and Monsters" is a speculation about the last days of the director James Whale, who was open about his sexuality in an era when most homosexuals in Hollywood stayed prudently in the closet. Whale (1889-1957) directed some 21 films, but is best remembered for seven made between 1931 and 1939: "Frankenstein," "The Old Dark House," "The Invisible Man," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "Show Boat," "The Great Garrick" and " The Man in the Iron Mask." At the time of his death he had not made a movie in 16 years, but still lived comfortably, dabbling at a little painting and a little lusting.

He made some good movies ("Frankenstein" placed 87th on the American Film Institute's list of great American films, although "The Bride of Frankenstein" is by far the better of the two pictures). He began as an actor, lost his first love in World War I and joined the exodus to Hollywood, where he made a lot of money and never quite realized his potential. He must have seemed an attractive challenge to Ian McKellen, the gifted British Shakespearean who in this film and "Apt Pupil" is belatedly flourishing in the movies after much distinction on the stage.

McKellen playing Whale makes sense, but is it ideal casting to use Brendan Fraser ("George of the Jungle") as Clayton Boone, the young man who comes to cut the grass? Fraser is subtle and attuned to the role, but doesn't project strong sexuality; shouldn't the yard man be not simply attractive but potentially exciting to the old man? We never ever believe there's a possibility that anything physical will occur between them--and we should, I think .....

- the Bride of Frankenstein

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Wedding Banquet

- Marriage at Cana by Giusto de' Menabuoi ... hey, is that a kitty at Jesus' feet? :-)

The gospel reading for tomorrow (Sunday) is one of my favorites - the wedding at Cana ( John 2:1-11). Here below is what John Dear SJ has to say about it in his book, The Questions of Jesus ......


The first miracle Jesus performs is not the healing of a leper, not the recovery of sight to the blind, or the raising of the dead to life. Rather, Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding banquet so that the party can go on for days.

The details of the event shed light on not only Jesus' power but also his personality and his lavish efforts to celebrate life. We are told that there is a wedding in Cana in Galilee, that the mother of Jesus is there, and that "Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding." The next thing we know, they run out of wine. I think that means Jesus and his disciples make a spectacle of themselves. They drink all the wine! This may be partly why Mary approaches Jesus to report, "They have no wine." She also knows he can do something about it.

"Woman, how does your concern affect me?" he asks. In other words, "What do you want me to do about it? What can I do?" This is a reasonable question. What does his mother expect of him? Why should he be bothered with a minor social crisis?

"My hour has not yet come," Jesus tells his mother. In fact, throughout John's Gospel, "the hour" approaches gradually until at last it arrives, and Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and executed. But here, at the wedding, the story is just beginning. There is no hint of such a disastrous outcome. We do not know what that hour might bring.

Jesus calls his mother "Woman," the normal, polite form of address for his time. His question is also a common Hebrew expression, literally meaning, "What is this to me and to you?" But his question does seem cold. He is not eager to help. He does not want to make a spectacle of himself.

His mother knows, however, that Jesus is all heart. He will always help. She does not want the host to be mortified or the wedding party ruined. "Do whatever he tells you," she tells the servers. Jesus then obeys his mother and instructs the servers to fill six empty water jars, usually used for Jewish ceremonial washings. Each jar can hold twenty to thirty gallons of water. He then tells the servers to draw out some wine and take it to the headwaiter. In the process, the water turns into the finest wine. With this, we are told, he "revealed his glory and his disciples began to believe in him."

Jesus creates not only the best wine but an enormous amount: 180 gallons! Although there may be a mere fifty people at the party, Jesus wants everyone to drink and celebrate. With one gesture, he wipes away the entire Jewish purification ritual. He abolishes the Jewish ceremonial washings by using those water jars for a party, foreshadowing the abundance of wine at the messianic banquet. He wants everyone to enjoy the fullness of life here and now. Jesus repeatedly describes heaven as a wedding banquet, a party that never ends, with enough wine for everyone. As his first public act, Jesus gets the party off to a great start.

"Woman, how does your concern affect me?" Notice, however, the question is never answered by Mary or Jesus. Rather, we are left to ponder the question and the outcome. Whenever we ask Jesus for help, even if only for more wine, he may question us, but he will never deny us. There will be wine enough for everyone in Jesus' reign. He is determined that everyone have life and "life to the full," that there be no more violence, no more suffering, no more death, only celebration, peacer, and joy.

Mary knows this. We must know it, too, if we are to get on with the party, making sure everyone has life to the full.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima

What is patriotism about, really? Oscar Wilde said it was the virtue of the vicious ... I'm not sure he was wrong. A movie is out that dwells on tthis question ... Letters From Iwo Jima, made by Clint Eastwood.

The film is based on the books Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, (played by Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai in Eastwood's movie) and Sadness in Dying Gracefully by Kumiko Kakehashi. As Wikipedia says ...

The film tells the story of the invasion of Iwo Jima during World War II from the Japanese viewpoint, as opposed to the American viewpoint depicted in Flags of Our Fathers [another Eastwood film[. The story follows that of the Japanese commander, Army General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (who must organize the defense of the isolated and unsupported forces), of his good friend Lt. Colonel Takeichi Nishi (former comrade in the cavalry and 1932 Olympic gold-medalist), and of the ordinary soldiers, especially young draftee Private Saigo (who only wants to get back to his wife and new-born child back in mainland Japan.) The men write letters home, not knowing if they will ever go home or if their letters will ever even be read, as the fighting, deprivation, death, and misery take their toll ..... On December 6th, 2006, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures named Letters from Iwo Jima the best film of 2006. On December 10th, 2006 the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named Letters from Iwo Jima Best Picture of 2006 ....

My grandfather served in WWII and thought of the Japanese as enemies. Yet my sister has spent 7 years in Japan teaching English, and I was briefly married to a Japanese American, whose grandparebnts immigrated to the US, whose parents spent time here in a relocation camp. Everythingg's mixed up. And that's what Eastwood does with his movies, Letters From Iwo Jima, and its companion Flags of Our Fathers. ... one shows the pov of the Japanese, one shows the pov of the US, and the virtue of patriotism is reletive. Here below is part of the New York Times movie review - Blurring the Line in the Bleak Sands of Iwo Jima ....


There are certain assumptions that American audiences, perhaps without realizing it, are likely to bring to a movie about World War II. The combat picture has been a Hollywood staple for so long — since before the actual combat was over — that it can sometimes seem as if every possible story has already been told. Or else as if each individual story, from G.I. Joe to Private Ryan, is at bottom a variation on familiar themes: victory against the odds, brotherhood under fire, sacrifice for a noble cause.

But of course there are other, contrasting stories, a handful of which form the core of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s harrowing, contemplative new movie and the companion to his “Flags of Our Fathers,” which was released this fall. That film, partly about the famous photograph of American servicemen raising the flag on the barren volcanic island of Iwo Jima, complicated the standard Hollywood combat narrative in ways both subtle and overt. It exposed the heavy sediment of individual grief, cynicism and frustration beneath the collective high sentiments of glory and heroism but without entirely debunking the value or necessity of those sentiments.

“Letters,” which observes the lives and deaths of Japanese soldiers in the battle for Iwo Jima, similarly adheres to some of the conventions of the genre even as it quietly dismantles them. It is, unapologetically and even humbly, true to the durable tenets of the war-movie tradition, but it is also utterly original, even radical in its methods and insights ....

This is not only because the Japanese actors, speaking in their own language, give such vivid and varied performances, but also because the film, in its every particular, seems deeply and un-self-consciously embedded in the experiences of the characters they play. “Letters From Iwo Jima” is not a chronicle of victory against the odds, but rather of inevitable defeat. When word comes from Imperial headquarters that there will be no reinforcements, no battleships, no air support in the impending fight with the United States Marines, any illusion of triumph vanishes, and the stark reality of the mission takes shape. The job of these soldiers and their commanders, in keeping with a military ethos they must embrace whether they believe in it or not, is to die with honor, if necessary by their own hands.

The cruelty of this notion of military discipline, derived from long tradition and maintained by force, is perhaps less startling than the sympathy Mr. Eastwood extends to his characters, whose sacrifices are made in the service of a cause that the American audience knows to be bad as well as doomed. It is hard to think of another war movie that has gone so deeply, so sensitively, into the mind-set of the opposing side ....

A few scenes serve as hinges joining this movie to “Flags of Our Fathers.” While “Letters From Iwo Jima” seems to me the more accomplished of the two films — by which I mean that it strikes me as close to perfect — the two enrich each other, and together achieve an extraordinary completeness. They show how the experience of war is both a shared and a divisive experience, separating the dead from the living and the winners from the losers, even as it binds them all together.

Both films travel back and forth in time and space between Iwo Jima and the homelands of the combatants. In “Flags of Our Fathers” the battle itself happens mainly in flashback, since the movie is in large measure about the guilt and confusion that survivors encountered upon their reluctant return home. In “Letters From Iwo Jima” the battle is in the present tense, and it is home that flickers occasionally in the memories of men who are certain they will not live to see it again.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Best Contemporary Theology Meme

Chris at Sandalstraps' Sanctuary was kind enough to tag me with a meme ... one on contemporary theology ... be sure to check out his meme choices, and to visit Patrik's blog, where the meme originated. Here are the evolving guidelines - name three of the most influential works of contemporary theology, and three lesser known books almost everyone should read.

I'm no theology student - my choices are more likely to be based on what I'm finding most interesting at the moment - I've mixed the two groups up into one pile of both contemporary theological works and suggestions for reading. Here are my six choices below ...

- Hans Urs von Balthasar ... Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?: With a Short Discourse on Hell - here this Swiss former Jesuit and buddy of Karl Rahner writes about the hope of universal salvation, and an empty hell. I wrote a little about him and this idea in a past blog entry. Lots of good links for his stuff here.

- Gustavo Gutiérrez OP ... A Theology of Liberation ... a text on liberation theology by one of its founders, a Dominican priest who now teaches at Notre Dame. I have an old post, an interview with him from a journal, here.

- David Bentley Hart .... The Beauty Of The Infinite: The Aesthetics Of Christian Truth ... an Eastern Orthodox theologian shows us beauty will save the world. I'm not sure I always agree with him, but I love his writing. He has many articles to be found online, such as Tsunami and Theodicy at First Things.

- James Alison .... Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay .... one of the many great books by this Catholic priest and theologian. You can read Rowan William's review of the book here. And read more of Fr. Alison's work here.

- Rowan Williams .... The Body's Grace .... a paper by the Archbishop of Canterbury (before he was the Archbishop) on sexuality and theology - worth reading, and it can be found online at the link above.

- John Dear SJ ... Living Peace: A Spirituality of Contemplation and Action ... written by a Jesuit peace activist who's not afraid to live out his theology, even if that means going to prison, this book tells about his formation. You can read his column at National Catholic Reporter., or visit his website here.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Andrew Linzey

I received my latest issue of The Way yesterday, and it has some interesting articles ... the one that I want to mention is by Andrew Linzey. Here's what Wikipedia has, in part, to say about him ...

The Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, PhD, DD, is an Anglican priest, a theologian, a writer, and is internationally known as an authority on Christianity and animals.

He is a member of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford, and holds the world’s first academic post in Ethics, Theology and Animal Welfare — the Bede Jarret Senior Research Fellowship at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. From 1987 to 1992, he was Director of Studies of the Centre for the Study of Theology in the University of Essex, England, and from 1992 to 1996, he was Special Professor in Theology at the University of Nottingham, England. In 1998, he was Visiting Professor at the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently Honorary Professor at the University of Birmingham, England, and Special Professor at Saint Xavier University, Chicago.

Andrew Linzey is the director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, opened in November 2006. The centre aims to encourage academic research into, and improve public debate on, the issues surrounding animal-related ethics. More than 100 academics in various fields currently act as advisers to the centre.

In the same year and in recognition of his role in the creation of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, Andrew Linzey was named the Henry Bergh Professor of Animal Ethics at the Graduate Theological Foundation in the U.S., the first such professorship of its kind in the world ...

What attracted me to the article was its subject of animals ... I've been interested in them, and have had an empthy for them, since I was a little kid (hence the vegetarianism and my attachment to my four cats). Here below is the beginning part of Fr. Linzey's article in The Way - Animals As Grace (I'd post more of the article if it was available online, but my bad eyes and two-fingered typing make it hard to copy from the journal) ...


Barney was a refugee. Abandoned, he subsequently found a home in the local animal sanctuary. It was there that we first met him. His shaggy hair, dark brown eyes, and exuberant temperament endeared him to the Linzey family .... One day he began to have fits, an incurable neurological condition was diagnosed. Euthanasia was the advised course of action .... As we stood around the open grave, I fumbled to find some appropriate words of parting.

But there were no prescribed words .... The Christian heritage of 2,000 years of spirituality and scholarship has produced only liturgical silence over the deaths of millions of members of other species, even those who share and enrich our lives. A tradition that has countenanced the blessing of cars and houses has never even registered a pastoral need in relation to the death of companion animals.

Struck by the existence of this lacuna, I was determined to do something .... What was the problem then that I sought to address? Quite simply; the invisibility of animals in Christian worship. Christians currently worship God as though the world of animals does not exist .... But to maintain such a position is increasingly problematic once it is fully understood that God is the creator not only of the human species but also of millions of other living things. Can the God who nourishes and sustains the entire created universe really only be interested in one species? ....


The opinion in the article may be a minority report, but it's one with which I agree :-)

- Fr. Linzey

Monday, January 08, 2007


Jesus' baptism is celebrated today - here's what Wikipedia has to say about the location of the event ...

John is placed by the passage in the wilderness of Judea, which is generally taken to refer to the region of Judea sloping down from the highlands to the Dead Sea, an arid area not well suited to habitation. The term normally translated as wilderness is occasionally translated as desert, although there was enough moisture to allow for pastoralism. According to Pliny this region was home to the Essenes, and John could plausibly have been one of their major leaders. According to Donald Guthrie, at this time wilderness was considered much closer to God than the more corrupt cities.

According to tradition, Jesus meets John at the Jordan River, five miles south of the Allenby Bridge, near Qasir al-Yahud on the West Bank. This location is today the site of an Eastern Orthodox monastery. However, the area is also currently an Israeli military district closed to the public, though open areas down the river are provided for Christian pilgrims who wish to perform baptism there themselves. Another site showing early Christian activity on the Eastern bank in Jordan is considered by some to be the site of the baptism, and is promoted as such by Jordanian tourism officials.

- According to history and the bible, this is the exact site of baptism,The River of Jordan-Baptism site
... Wikipedia

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Friday, January 05, 2007

Piergiorgio Welby

I saw a story in The Tablet today - A life too burdensome by John J. Paris, S.J., professor of Bioethics at Boston College - about Italian poet and muscular dystrophy sufferer Piergiorgio Welby, who has been allowed to die by his doctors, as he asked, and who was then refused a Catholic funeral.

Here below is a little from The Tablet article. It was long, so I left out the part which discussed the evolution of Catholic thinking and thinkers on the issues, from Francisco de Vitoria onwards - best to read the whole thing ...


What, if any, is the difference between killing a patient and letting him die? Or euthanasia and the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical interventions?

These issues once again captured the world's attention when Piergiorgio Welby, an Italian poet and a long-time advocate for euthanasia, composed an eloquent letter to the President of Italy pleading to be allowed to die. "I love life, Mr President," he wrote. But after 40 years of battling muscular dystrophy and nine years attached to a ventilator, Welby was losing his capacity to speak or to eat. He concluded his letter with the words: "What is left to me is no longer a life. It is an unbearable torture." He then asked to be allowed to have his ventilator removed. That request, honoured on a regular basis in hospitals across the world, caused uproar in Italy. His plea was denounced by critics as a demand for suicide or euthanasia. After a doctor defied an Italian court ruling and switched off the ventilator the Diocese of Rome denied Welby a Catholic funeral. Church officials said his "will to end his life was known, as it had been repeated and publicly affirmed, in contrast to Catholic doctrine".

Earlier, the judge ruled that while Welby had a constitutional right to be free of unwanted medical treatment, Italy's medical code "requires doctors to maintain the life of a patient". "Physicians", she wrote, "even when faced with the request of the patient, must not carry out ... treatments aimed at causing death." The judge concluded her opinion with the observation that Italy's penal code outlaws the "homicide of a consenting person and helping [someone] to commit suicide".

How in Catholic Italy did such confusion arise over the distinction between withdrawal of burdensome medical interventions and suicide/killing? In America, the courts and the American Medical Association have categorised both artificially supplied nutrition and fluids and the use of ventilators as medical interventions. The Church's teaching has in the main agreed with this. A notable exception was John Paul II's "Allocation" in 2004 to the Pontifical Council for Life in which he was quoted as saying, "artificial nutrition and fluids are natural means and thus always obligatory". But this statement was a one-off, delivered to a private audience, and had no theological basis. It was never repeated by Pope John Paul, nor has it been by his successor, Pope Benedict.

Much more reliable is the Vatican's 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, which states: "One cannot impose on anyone the obligation to have recourse to a technique which is already in use but which carries a risk or is burdensome. Such a refusal is not the equivalent of suicide [or euthanasia]; on the contrary, it should be considered as an acceptance of the human condition, or a wish to avoid the application of a medical procedure disproportionate to the results that can be expected." .....

The rich, nuanced and highly developed Catholic teaching that there is no duty to use medical measures artificially to prolong life is clear. "The problem" in the Welby case, notes Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, the Vatican's top official for health, in a recent interview in La Repubblica, "is to know if we find ourselves truly in front of a case of artificially prolonging life." Piergiorgio Welby responded to that question in his letter to the Italian President: "What is natural about a hole in the windpipe and a pump that blows air into the lungs? What is natural about a body kept biologically functional with the help of artificial respirators, artificial feed, artificial hydration, artificial intestinal emptying, of death artificially postponed?"

At the end of his long journey towards death Pope John Paul II declined the option of returning to Gemelli Hospital, where earlier his failing breathing was assisted by a respirator and his nutrition supplied through a feeding tube. Rather than return to those mechanisms that might have extended his earthly life John Paul II's parting plea was, "Let me go to the house of the Father." No one confused the Pope's action with suicide. Nor should they do so with Welby's refusal to endure what he described as "the unbearable torture" of being attached to a respirator.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

This week's Netflix movie came - The Tommyknockers, a tv miniseries based on a Steven King novel and starring Jimmy Snits and Marg Helgenberger - but don't worry, I'm not going to inflict the review of it on you :-). I thought instead I'd write a little about another movie, the review of which I read today at Roger Ebert's site ... Pan's Labyrinth.

The 2006 film (in Spanish with subtitles) is directed by Guillermo del Toro, who was influenced by a number of other works in its creation, including Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths and Lord Dunsany's The Blessing of Pan. The story is set in Spain in 1944, after the Civil War, and tells two intertwined tales ... one about a young girl who travels with her pregnant mother to meet her stepfather, an army captain, at a stronghold in the mountains, where he's posted to eradicate lingering rebels ... and another about a long lost fairy princess.

Below is part of the review by Jim Emerson. Read the whole thing at Ebert's site, here.


Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" is one of the cinema's great fantasies, rich with darkness and wonder. It's a fairy tale of such potency and awesome beauty that it reconnects the adult imagination to the primal thrill and horror of the stories that held us spellbound as children. If you recall the chills that ran down your spine and the surreal humor that tickled your brain in the presence of "Alice in Wonderland," "Little Red Riding Hood" or "The Wizard of Oz" when you were a child (or, later, in the nightmarish dream-films of Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau, F.W. Murnau or David Cronenberg), you'll discover those sensations once again, buried deep in the heart of "Pan's Labyrinth." ....

Opening titles set the story in Spain, 1944, as resistance fighters lurking in the mountains continue to fight Franco's fascist regime. And then, immediately, before we can grasp any visual bearings in that world, the subterranean voice of Pan (a faun, whose name "only the wind and the trees can pronounce") whisks us into a fable about a dead princess whose kingly father waits for his daughter's soul to return in another form, and to reclaim her place at his side.

In the first vertigo-inducing minute or so of the film we're plunged into the turbulent imagination of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish 11-year-old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to an old mill in the forest, where Ofelia's evil-stepfather-to-be, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), commands a fascist outpost. Next door is an ancient stone labyrinth, a place that's easy to get lost in.

he night of their arrival, Ofelia clings to her mother in bed as the creaky old house moans and Ofelia's unborn brother restlessly kicks. Carmen asks her daughter to tell the baby a story, to calm his nerves (as well as Ofelia's). The girl rests her head on her mother's belly and the camera, positioned at the foot of the bed, descends into Carmen's womb, where we see the fetus suspended in warmly glowing amniotic fluid.

Ofelia tells of a rare and beautiful night-blooming blue rose that once grew on a mountaintop .... The camera moves to the right and there's the rose and the mountain. Then it descends into the prickly brambles where a mantislike insect (previously encountered by Ofelia in the woods) alights in the foreground. The bug takes wing and the camera soars to keep up with it, past the moon and onto the stone sill of the room where Ofelia and her mother lie in bed. This astounding and fluid composite shot serves as a microcosm of the whole movie: a graceful, complex but seamless, seemingly inexorable movement that weaves in and out of fantasy and reality so that each becomes an extension of the other ....

Ofelia's challenges do not arise like arbitrary plot obstacles; they are organic to her (and the movie's) development. The girl learns not only to follow instructions, and that there are heavy prices to pay for failing to abide by them, but also to trust her own instincts about right and wrong. In order to find her true self, she must also find the strength to break the rules imposed by authority.

An individual conscience: What could be a more powerful anti-fascist weapon than that?


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Yes, but is it true?

I saw this story on the Google news page today - Same-Sex Marriage Setback in Massachusetts .....

Massachusetts, the only state where same-sex marriage is legal, took a first step toward possibly banning it Tuesday when legislators voted to advance a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman ....

Seeing this news story made me think about a question raised recently in the comments section of my blog ... what responsibility do we heterosexual Christians have in regards to our gay/lesbian siblings ... what should we do in the face of assertions that they are "defective heterosexuals"? Maybe the answer is given in the title of an article from which I've posted bits below ... let us at least keep asking, "Is it true?"

The article, by Catholic theologian, Fr. James Alison, was originally a talk given in response to the UK government's proposals concerning same-sex partnership rights ...


Since the government announced its proposals, and this meeting was set up, the Vatican came out with its document last Thursday (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons. Vatican City, July 31, 2003), which was supposed to cast light on, or a shadow over, any deliberations such as these ....

The Vatican officials who published this letter clearly think that the movement towards legislative proposals for same-sex partnership or marriage which is growing all over the world is a sign that we are going to hell in a handcart. And the only response that is worthy of us is not to get worked up about the tone, the style and so on, but simply to ask “Yes, but is it true?” .....

This is the view of the Roman congregations that there is no such thing as gay and lesbian people as a class, merely individually defective heterosexual persons with a more or less strong tendency towards certain gravely immoral acts .....

So, the only question before us is: “Is it true that lesbian and gay people are defective heterosexuals”? According to how we answer this question, everything else follows. I myself, and I guess all of us here, take it for granted that it is not true, and that we are discovering that there just is such a thing as being lesbian or gay, in itself a matter of no great signficance, something capable of properly human flourishing or of dehumanising corruption – you can be a good gay man or a bad gay man, but it is not that you are gay, but how you live your life including how you develop and exercise being gay, that determines your goodness or badness. In this I am quite simply in disagreement with the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith on a question of truth.

I would like to point out how everything else in the document flows from the same starting point: all the observations about the common good of human society make no claim to be reasoned deductions drawn from the evidence of what we have learned in places where same-sex marriages or partnerships have a track record capable of being studied ....

There is one place in the document where, curiously, reference is made to experience, to empirically measurable fact. I say “curiously” since, although evidence of experience is absolutely indispensable for any real “natural law” argument, such appeal to experience is very rare in Vatican documents in this sphere:

“As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons. They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood. Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.” (Considerations 7,3)

The important point here is that an empirical claim is being made. At last!

Yes, but is it true? Is it true that experience has shown that kids brought up by same-sex partners fail to flourish appropriately because of this? There are long-term studies concerning this. As far as I am aware, most such studies have indicated that there is no measurable defect in flourishing in such children .... (I note that there is no footnote at this point in the Vatican's document to indicate the source of the claim “As experience has shown…”. Should not someone expressing serious concern about what might happen to infants do better than that?) ....

The Church's hierarchy does not recognise lesbian and gay people as a class of people with rights and responsabilities just as we are. It can recognise us as humans, but not as humans who are humans as gay or lesbian .... our hierarchy can say “Yes of course we recognise gay and lesbian people as humans, and they should be protected from attack, harassment and unjust discrimination, but, No, we can't recognise them as a class capable of living in a way which might suggest that they have typical patterns of behaviour and living which are either no threat to society, or may, given peace and development, be positively beneficial.” ....

However, I'd like to suggest that we should treat this business of our not being considered reasonable subjects of discourse not as a burden to be groaned about resentfully, but as an opportunity .... instead of arguing about “Should the Church allow gay marriage?”, we should instead be asking a more classic question. Given the existence, present and future, of committed, long term, partnerships recognised by civil law between adults of the same-sex who happen to be baptised, what should we call these? To what forms of flourishing can they contribute? What might their relationship be to the creation of forms of hospitality to the vulnerable, whether children or other precarious people? Please remember that in the classic understanding of marriage, it is the fact that the two partners are baptised which is what gives the marriage its sacramentality. They are living out a secular reality, marriage, in a way which is elevated by the fact that each is acting out the role of Christ loving his Church by giving his life, even unto death, for the other ....

That the clerical witnesses to our ceremonies are likely to be invited friends rather than official signatories should not put us off from developing the rites. We are also in a much freer position from which to start than many straight people .... So, we have both a carte blanche and a lot of work to do in developing our understanding of what seems like an appropriate period of solidification of partnerships, creating the space in which people who may not have had a chance to develop the habits of fidelity which make commitment possible, are empowered to do so before their partnership is celebrated in a liturgy ....

I'd like to conclude by going back to the beginning. We are all of us, over the next few weeks and months, likely to be in conversations with friends, family, press, Church officials and others about this issue. May I beg you not to yield to the temptation of being provoked, not to allow yourselves to be fascinated by the violence of the language in the recent document, not to indulge in the easy critique of the Vatican which our culture and our press offer us, but instead to keep raising this little question: “Yes, but is it true?” The only issue at stake for the Church in discussions of gay and lesbian anything is the issue of truth. Thank you.