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Monday, August 31, 2009


- by Albert Lorieux

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Opera of the Seas

- by Margaret Macdonald, circa 1915

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Confession

- by Sir Frank Dicksee

A poem of glass flowers and Richard Evans Schultes

(poem at the bottom)

It was in a Wade Davis book about the plants of the Amazon that I read about Davis' famous teacher, Richard Evans Schultes, who was also the mentor of interesting guys like biologist E.O. Wilson, physician Andrew Weil, psychologist Daniel Goleman, poet Allen Ginsberg, and authors Alejo Carpentier and William S. Burroughs....

- Schultes in the Amazon

.... here's a little about Schultes from Wikipedia --

"Richard Evans Schultes (SHULL-tees) (January 12, 1915 – April 10, 2001) may be considered the father of modern ethnobotany, for his studies of indigenous peoples' (especially the indigenous peoples of the Americas) uses of plants, including especially entheogenic or hallucinogenic plants (particularly in Mexico and the Amazon), for his lifelong collaborations with chemists, and for his charismatic influence as an educator at Harvard University .... His book The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers (1979), co-authored with chemist Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, is considered his greatest popular work ....

A Harvard student himself from 1934 to 1941, Schultes studied with Oakes Ames, orchidologist and Director of the Harvard Botanical Museum .... The first of many prolonged trips to the Upper Amazon began in 1941 as a Harvard Research Associate, and included a search for wild disease-resistant rubber species in an effort to free the United States from dependence on Southeast Asian rubber plantations which had become unavailable due to Japanese occupation in World War II ..... Schultes' botanical fieldwork among Native American communities led him to be one of the first to alert the world about destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the disappearance of its native people. He collected over 30,000 herbarium specimens (including 300 species new to science) and published numerous ethnobotanical discoveries including the source of the dart poison known as curare, now commonly employed as a muscle relaxant during surgery .... Schultes became Curator of Harvard's Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium in 1953, Curator of Economic Botany in 1958, and Professor of Biology in 1970."


- a glass flower from The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. You can more about the collection in this NPR story - At Corning, Art That Imitates Life — Astonishingly. Here's a poem mentioned in the article ....

The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum by Mark Doty

Strange paradise, complete with worms,
monument of an obsessive will to fix forms;
every apricot or yellow spot's seen so closely,
in these blown blooms and fruit, that exactitude
is not quite imitation. Leaf and root,
the sweet flag's flaring bud already,
at the tip, blackened; it's hard to remember
these were ballooned and shaped by breath
they're lovely because they seem
to decay; blue spots on bluer plums,
mold tarring a striped rose. I don't want to admire
the glassblower's academic replica,
his copies correct only to a single sense.
And why did a god so invested in permanence
choose so fragile a medium, the last material
he might expect to last? Better prose
to tell the forms of things, or illustration.
Though there's something seductive in this impossibility:
transparent color telling the live mottle of peach,
the blush or tint of crab, englobed,
gorgeous, edible. How else match that flush?
He's built a perfection out of hunger,
fused layer upon layer, swirled until
what can't be swallowed, won't yield
almost satisfies, an art
mouthed to the shape of how soft things are,
how good, before they disappear.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Again - Imagination, art, belief, ritual

Yesterday I posted a video by anthropologist Wade Davis but it somehow got deleted. Here it is again below. What I found most interesting was what Wade said near the beginning of the video, which made me think of our response to The Fall .......

"I spent two months in a cave in southwest France with a poet, Clayton Eshleman, who wrote a beautiful book, Juniper Fuse [Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld], and you could look at this art [Paleolithic art in slides shown] and of course see the complex social organization of the people that brought it into being, but more importantly, it spoke of a deeper yearning, something far more sophisticated than hunting magic. And the way Clayton put it was this way - he said, you know, clearly at some time we were all of an animal nature and at some point we weren't. And he viewed proto-shamanism as a kind of original attempt through ritual to rekindle a connection that had been irrevocably lost. So he saw the art not as hunting magic but as postcards of nostalgia. And viewed in that light it takes on a whole new resonance. And the most amazing thing about the upper Paleolithic art is that as an aesthetic expression, it lasted for almost twenty thousand years. If these were postcards of nostalgia, ours was a very long farewell indeed."

Some music before bed :)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cemetery Dance

UPDATE: I just finished the book, or rather stopped reading it - I'm sorry to say I don't recommend it.

The latest novel about FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child has come out - Cemetery Dance. In this story, Pendergast and NYPD detective Vincent D'Agosta investigate the murder of their NY Times reporter friend Bill Smithback by what seems to have been a voodoo-created zombie, sent by a reclusive band of Obeah practicing men living in a remote area of Inwood Hill Park.

Speaking of voodoo and zombies, this takes me back to an old movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow, starring Bill Pullman (see trailer below). I didn't see the movie so can't speak to its quality :) but what's interesting is that it was based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Wade Davis, cultural anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence .... I read his book some years ago and thought it was so interesting that I used the info about tetrodotoxin in some of my own fiction stories.

I've learned of something from reading the book that I hadn't before known .... in the northernmost tip of Manhattan lie almost 200 acres of nearly primeval forest. Here's a little about it from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation page...


There's old New York, and then there's old New York. Inwood Hill Park is a living piece of old New York. Evidence of its prehistoric roots exists as dramatic caves, valleys, and ridges left as the result of shifting glaciers. Evidence of its uninhabited state afterward remains as its forest and salt marsh (the last natural one in Manhattan), and evidence of its use by Native Americans in the 17th century continues to be discovered. Much has occurred on the land that now composes Inwood Hill Park since the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries, but luckily, most of the park was largely untouched by the wars and development that took place ...

Inwood Hill Park contains the last natural forest and salt marsh in Manhattan .... Human activity has been present in Inwood Hill Park from prehistoric times. Through the 17th century, Native Americans known as the Lenape (Delawares) inhabited the area. There is evidence of a main encampment along the eastern edge of the park. The Lenape relied on both the Hudson and Harlem Rivers as sources for food. Artifacts and the remains of old campfires were found in Inwood’s rock shelters, suggesting their use for shelter and temporary living quarters ....

The Straus family (who owned Macy’s) enjoyed a country estate in Inwood; its foundation is still present. Isidor and Ida Straus lost their lives on the S.S. Titanic’s maiden voyage. When the Department of Parks bought land for the park in 1916, the salt marsh was saved and landscaped; a portion of the marsh was later landfilled. The buildings on the property were demolished. During the Depression the City employed WPA workers to build many of the roads and trails of Inwood Hill Park.

In 1992 Council Member Stanley E. Michels introduced legislation, which was enacted, to name the natural areas of Inwood Hill Park “Shorakapok” in honor of the Lenape who once resided here. In 1995 the Inwood Hill Park Urban Ecology Center was opened. It provides information to the public about the natural and cultural history of this beautiful park. Today the Urban Park Rangers work with school children on restoration projects to improve the health and appearance of the park. Complementing the work of the Rangers is that of dozens of Inwood “Vols” (Volunteers), who assist with park restoration and beautification.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Garry Wills - What Jesus Meant

One of the books I'd like to read is Garry Wills' What Jesus Meant, but the library doesn't have it in audio. I noticed, though, that Google books has it online (or bits of it) and I can read it there in large enough font size to make it other than a pain. I'm reading it with trepidation because I'm afraid that it will shred my nice warm fuzzy Jesus, but still I'm reading it. Here's a Chesterton quote that Wills has in the foreword .....


We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and human lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heartbreaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters ....

There is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifacation of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite ... [The gospel story] is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather chart of their own. The Peter whom popular Church teaching presents is very rightly the Peter to whom Christ said in forgiveness, "Feed my lambs." He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the devil, crying in that obscure wrath, "Get thee behind me, Satan." Christ lamented with nothing but love and pity over Jerusalem which was to murder him. We do not know what strange spiritual atmosphere or spiritual insight led him to sink Bethsaida lower in the pit than Sodom.



Edward M. Kennedy, RIP

Ted Kennedy was not a great man. The extraordinary events of his life clashed with his human frailties, and the frailties sometimes won. He had real talent as a legislative politician, but for his first few decades seemed destined mainly to be someone’s kid brother. There was nothing modest, though, about Ted Kennedy’s accomplishments or the hard work that went into them. There was nothing modest about his compassion for those without means, for whom he toiled most of his life. There was nothing modest about his love of his family, and the way that devotion spurred him past his very real failures and frailties to amass a legacy to match that of any Massachusetts politician, including his brothers ...
- from The Boston Globe

In a past post, I pasted a speech that Ted Kennedy gave at the funeral of his brother, Robert. In that speech, he quoted another speech, one Robert had once given - A Tiny Ripple of Hope, delivered 6 June 1966, Cape Town, South Africa - and said about it ... That is the way he lived. That is what he leaves us. I think that speech of Robert's would say the same thing about Ted Kennedy, if not always in actuality, at least in aspiration, so here is that bit of Ted's speech, Address at the Public Memorial Service for Robert F. Kennedy, delivered 8 June 1968 at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, found at American Rhetoric here ....


"There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember -- even if only for a time -- that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek -- as we do -- nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again. The answer is to rely on youth -- not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.

It is a revolutionary world we live in, and this generation at home and around the world has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived. Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation; a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth; a young woman reclaimed the territory of France; and it was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the 32 year-old Thomas Jefferson who [pro]claimed that "all men are created equal."

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. *It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.* Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged, and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that event.

*The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.* Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live."


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Philosophy Bites

I came upon a great blog today - Philosophy Bites - which offers podcasts of top philosophers interviewed on bite-sized topics. Here's what the About page has on the authors of the blog ....

David Edmonds is co-author of Wittgenstein's Poker - this focuses on a ten minute argument between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. His other books - also written with John Eidinow - include Bobby Fischer Goes to War (on the notorious chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky) and Rousseau's Dog, which dissects the famous quarrel between David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His day job is making radio documentaries for the BBC.

Nigel Warburton has written a number of books including Philosophy: The Basics, Philosophy: The Classics (some of which is available as a podcast) , Thinking from A to Z and The Art Question. He is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University. He has also made a number of programmes for BBC Radio 4, writes a weblog called Virtual Philosopher and regularly leads courses on the philosophy of art at Tate Modern. His latest book, Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, will be published in February 2009

They have some great interviews, like Marilyn McCord Adams on Evil and Keith Ward on Idealism in Eastern and Western Philosophy.

A related site is Ethics Bites.

Monday, August 24, 2009

San Bartolomeo all'Isola

- detail, Bartholomew, from the upper right of the Maestà by Duccio, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

I read today about San Bartolomeo all'Isola, the basilica in Rome on Tiber Island, which contains the relics of St. Bartholomew the Apostle.

- a 1593 print of Tiber Island

- Façade of San Bartolomeo all'Isola

- interior

Before Mad Men

I've seen a lot of mention around blogdom lately of Mad Men, a tv series about a 1950s era Madison Ave advertising agency, and which deals with questions of morals, ethics, secular and religious belief systems, and the messiness of human interaction. I haven't seen the show myself, not having cable tv (sniff, sniff), but it reminded me of a past tv series that also dealt with the same themes of ethically challenged characters working for an ad agency - Thirtysomething. I know, I know - most people feel justified in despising that series :) but bear with me a bit while I explain why it's at least as good in its own way as Mad Men.

Mad Men has the ad agency - so did Thirtysomething. When the show started, Michael Steadman and friend Elliot Weston had just begun their own small ad agency. It failed shortly thereafter and they both joined the ranks of a huge agency, DAA, with a very disturbing boss, Miles Drentell. It was an interesting glimpse into how ad agencies work and there were plenty of ethical dilemmas, from the making of manipulative ads to the betrayals of an insider takeover (see the video below).

Mad Men has an interesting tension between the religious and the secular - there's even a Jesuit character :) - but Thirtysomething was no slouch here either. The main character, Michael, was lapsed Jewish, his friend Elliot lapsed Catholic, and the series allowed them to grow and change in their relationship to their religious doubts and beliefs over the years.

Mad Men has some women characters who are allowed to be real people struggling with the 50s template of and their own unexamined attitudes about what it means to be female. Thirtysomething has been criticized for showing women characters as half-heartedly liberated, as closet stay-at-home moms. I think actually it shows the real tension women feel between wanting to be full people, to have a family and a vocation, and one of the characters I found especially interesting was Michael's cousin Melissa, who slowly and painfully forges a photography career for herself.

I think one of the worst crimes Thirtysomething perpetrates is showing us how embarrassingly seriously some of us took ourselves in the 80s and 90s. It's much easier to look way way back to the 50s with Mad Men, to a time when we may not even have existed, and to enjoy the weirdness and the wonder of an era untouched by our questionable participation :)

Here's a vid from YouTube that shows Michael and his dreaded boss at work at the ad agency, DAA ....

I've seen at Netflix that Thirtysomething has just come out on DVD - maybe give it a chance, if you haven't already consigned it to the tv outer darkness.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Heteronomy - not!

A homily I read today asked the question, "who will be your God?" That seems like such an important question to ask oneself. Thinking about this reminded me of a past lecture on Kant by Keith Ward, and I realized my God is kind of Kant-like, at least in practice. Here's that bit of Professor Ward's lecture (it sounds like the idea of the primacy of conscience) with the video of the whole thing below my transcription (watch the whole videa here) ....

"And what is the practical consideration about God? Kant thought it was mainly two-fold. One is that God is the ground of moral obligation ... when you feel there is an objective moral obligation, you're in fact hearing the voice of God .... it's not that you first of all believe in God, you theoretically have some arguments that there's a God, and then you say our God commands you to do something so I must do it. Kant was totally opposed to that. So Kant would have been opposed to anybody who said "I can show there's a God and that God, for example, inspired the writing of the Bible [and] because it says in the Bible you should do X, therefore you should do it .... Rather he felt it's the other way around.

You argue from your deepest and strongest moral obligation to the existence of that which grounds this obligation in objective reality. You call that God. So it can never be the case for Kant that God commands something immoral. That's just not a possibility for him because you decide what God is by finding out what your strongest moral obligation is. So if you think the strongest moral obligation is to love your neighbor as yourself, then you can say ... God is love. And you're not just saying I'm going to use the word God to stand for some human obligation - what you're trying to say is, ultimate reality grounds this objective obligation ....

For Kant, the Will of God cannot conflict with your duty, your moral obligation, because you define the will of God in terms of your moral obligation. So there cannot be a conflict between revealed morality and your own felling of what is right or wrong - it is your feeling that will actually determine you to accept something as a revelation or not. And if you have a revelation that tells you to do something immoral, for example if in the Bible it tells you that women should always obey their husbands, as I believe it does my wife tells me, then you should say, if that conflicts with my moral obligation it's not what God says. I don't care if it's in the Bible or not, because that's not what God is, God doesn't do that sort of thing. So Kant was clearly not somebody who let his morality be determined by revelation. He called that heteronomy, taking your moral beliefs on authority from somewhere else, either a book or a person or a group of people. So he did believe in moral autonomy in the sense that you have to start with what you think is right and your religion can never conflict with that ...."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why they stay(ed)

- Peter Finch and Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story

I've been reading the essay Why they stay(ed) by Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, an essay mentioned in a couple of posts at America magazine's blog, one by James Martin SJ, and one by Austen Ivereigh.

The essay is about the Vatican visitation/investigation of US women religious - why it's upsetting everyone and what the possible motivations behind it might be. It's a long essay but kind of fascinating to me, someone not brought up Catholic and never having known a nun/sister in real life. I'd seen movies, of course :) .....

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, a 1957 film starring Robert Mitchum as Corporal Allison, a marine, and Deborah Kerr as a novice nun, stranded alone and hiding on a Japanese occupied island in the Pacific during WWII ...

And The Devils, a 1971 movie starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, based on the book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley, about a 17th century nunnery and demonic possession (must have been rated X :) .....

And the one I found the most interesting, The Nun's Story, a 1969 film starring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke, a Belgian nun who served as a nurse in the Belgian Congo during WWII. This one was actually pretty grim.

Aside from fictional nuns/sisters from the movies, the only ones I knew of were from the past, both distant and recent, like Teresa of Avila, and Dorothy Stang. This has made reading Sandra Schneiders' essay really eye-opening for me Here are just a few bits of the essay that I found especially interesting ....


[...] religious life, including the behavior of its members, is no longer hidden in cloistered dwellings but is reasonably open to the view of both laity and clergy. Some people, lay or cleric, might prefer religious to wear atemporal uniforms of homespun and sensible oxfords rather than simple contemporary professional clothes, or to live in special dwellings and teach in a parish school rather than living, perhaps individually or intercongregationally (as some religious have since the first century) or at a distance from their headquarters (as missionaries always have), in relation to their now diverse and widespread ministries. But there is nothing intrinsic to religious life about a particular type of clothing or dwelling or ministry. Clothing of religious, according to the directives of Vatican II, is to be simple, modest, hygienic, and appropriate to the times; housing is to be appropriate to the form of community life and poverty specified in an order's approved documents (called "constitutions"); ministries are to be undertaken in obedience as obedience is understood in those same documents. These norms are applied differently by different orders and this has always been the case, often enough even among houses of a single order. Jesus and his itinerant band of ministerial disciples wore no special clothes and had no fixed abode. He brought down the murderous ire of the hierarchy of his own religious tradition because, among other things, he related to women as equals and involved them along with men in his ministry, reached out to the "disordered" and marginalized in his society, laid healing hands on the suffering, conversed with and allowed himself to be challenged and changed by people outside his own religious tradition, refused to condemn anyone, however "sinful," except religious hypocrites burdening people with obligations beyond their strength.


At that point in time [pre-sixties] the Catholic girl had two viable life options when she completed high school (or more rarely college): to marry like her mother and begin her own life of child rearing or enter the convent. While by far the majority chose marriage (probably as naïvely as the minority chose religious life!), the numbers from every graduating class entering the convent was impressive. And parents, trained to regard a "vocation" in the family as an honor and blessing, could afford to offer one or more children to God without fear of dying without grandchildren. Novitiate classes could number 30 in a small congregation to a hundred or more in a large one. And Catholic culture made leaving the convent after profession as unthinkable as divorce ..... by the mid-sixties very few Catholic girls considered religious life and even fewer entered. The good news is that the only real reason, now, for a young woman to enter was that she really felt called by God to a life of consecrated celibacy lived with others who shared this vocation and expressed in a total commitment to the service of God's people. Not having a husband or children, not becoming personally wealthy, perhaps not being able to pursue exactly her professional interests were no longer seen as just "part of the package" of an otherwise "special" and therefore rewarding vocation but as difficult, free choices of a highly demanding life which could find justification only in a genuine religious vocation. Women took considerably longer to come to such decisions. The huge novitiate classes of 18-year olds disappeared and women entering tended to be in their late 20s or 30s or even older and applying, not as "classes" or "bands," but as individuals ... Beginning in the late 1960s through the 1980s there was a massive exodus of women from religious life. There were certainly some who left in bitterness and anger at what they considered an alienating and oppressive life of uniformity and repression in which they had somehow become trapped. But the vast majority, many of whom continue to this day to maintain warm relationships with their former orders and convent classmates, left because they came to realize that they were not called to religious life .... But it is important to realize that neither the exodus from religious life nor the decline in numbers entering was due to a sudden deterioration in the quality of religious life.


A far more interesting question than who left and why is, "Why did the ones who stayed, stay?" ..... These women are the contemporaries of those who left in the exodus of the '70s and '80s. Like those who left, they were young (20s to 40s), perhaps the best educated group of women in America at the time, professionally precocious, theologically well-grounded, and becoming increasingly interdependently autonomous as women in the church and world. These religious were eminently well-positioned to leave and had every reason (but one) to do so. They watched in anguish as increasing numbers of their friends made that choice. Religious life had little to offer them, humanly or materially speaking. Orders were losing their big institutions; financial insecurity was becoming a major concern; few were entering. The institutional church was repudiating feminism in all its forms; the papacy was engaged in vigorous restorationism; many in and outside the church including some in religious life had resigned themselves to (or rejoiced in) what they saw as "the death of the Council" or the "end of renewal." The exciting theologies of liberation and lay ministerial empowerment in the church were being repressed in favor of a renewed clericalism and centralization of power. From a strictly human standpoint it was a bleak time for those who had come of age in the joyous, Spirit-filled enthusiasm of the Council when community, equality of discipleship in the church, commitment to the building of a better world, deepening spirituality, inter-religious dialogue, feminist empowerment were the very air they breathed. From every angle hope was being crushed and old world narrowness, neo-orthodoxy, and Vatican re-centralization were replacing the Spirit-filled, world-affirming, humane spirit of John XXIII and the Council.

In this crucible the ones who stayed were tested by fire. Elsewhere I have referred to and described in more detail this period as a corporate "dark night of sense and spirit" for women religious. They were experiencing a deep purification of any sense of spiritual superiority (to say nothing of arrogant certainty), of elitism, of corporate power and influence, of "most favored status" or mysterious specialness in the church. Their faith was being battered by profound theological tensions raised by the clash between what they most deeply, if obscurely, knew was true and what was happening in the church and world. They had to find the taproot of their vocation, not in peer group euphoria, social status, or preferential treatment by the hierarchy, but in the core of their spirituality, face to face with the One to whom they had given their lives in celibate love, in the emptiness of a poverty that was spiritual as well as material, and in an obedience unto the death of everything they cherished, except the God in whom they believed. They found out experientially why Jesus withdrew to the mountains or the desert in the middle of the night and before dawn to pray, not to "set a good example" for the less spiritual but because he desperately needed God to make it through one more day ....

But the important thing for our purposes here is that these women are still "staying" because, in the very core of their being, they do not just "belong to a religious order"; they are religious. Hopefully, the present investigation will make evident to those whose concerns gave rise to it the meaning of religious life as it is being envisioned, lived, and handed on today in Congregations renewed in and by that Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit called the Second Vatican Council.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Any recommendations?

My sister gave me a gift certificate for and I'm trying to decide what book to buy with it. I'd like to get one about theology/religion but I don't know of many books to choose from in that area. I'm considering a couple - Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God by Marilyn McCord Adams or What Happened at Vatican II by John O'Malley - but I'd appreciate any recommendations others might have for worthy theology/religion books.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Avenging angels

The book I'm reading now from the library is the latest in the series about the Israeli agent/art restorer, Gabriel Allon, The Defector.

This one is kind of interesting for a number of reasons. One of them is that the story begins with Gabriel restoring a painting for the Vatican - the Crucifixion of Peter by Guido Reni.

- Crucifixion of Peter by Guido Reni

The other reason is that one of the recurring characters in the series comes to the fore in this story .... Mikhail, a former member of Sayeret Matkal and a participant in Operation Entebbe. When Gabriel and Mikhail set off to save Gabriel's kidnapped wife in The Defector, they're referred to as the avenging angels because of their names.

I like these novels by Daniel Silva - I learn about art restoration, get to visit far away places (in this one, Lake Como), but mostly I like them because they seriously challenge my existing opinions on Israel and even more so challenge my ideas of what's right and wrong.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Text This Week

- Codex Aureus Epternacensis

The gospel reading for tomorrow is one of my favorites, Matthew 20:1-16, a parable in which the kingdom of heaven is said to be like a landowner paying all the laborers who worked in his vineyard the same amount, whether they worked all day or only an hour.

One place I visit when looking up scriptural stuff is The Text This Week, which has a searchable index of passages with results of homilies and sermons, and also related artwork. Their page for Matthew 20:1-16 has links to sermons by Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Wesley, as well as contemporary guys like Abdrew Greeley .... it's interesting to see the difference in interpretation between the older and later sermons.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

God and Dog

Saw this at Of Course I Could Be Wrong ....

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I saw mention today of the murals by Irish artist Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, a former Catholic Apostolic Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here are some pics .....

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wies Church

There are some neat Belgian pulpit photos at sententiae et clamores which made me interested enough to look up other pulpit photos. I came upon one of the most rococo churches in the world .... Wies Church. Here's a little about it from Wikipedia ....

The pilgrimage church of Wies (German: Wieskirche) is an oval rococo church, designed in the late 1740s by Dominikus Zimmermann, who spent the last eleven years of his life in a nearby dwelling. It is located in the foothills of the Alps, the Steingaden municipality of the Weilheim-Schongau district, Bavaria, Germany. In 1738 tears were seen on a dilapidated wooden figure of the Scourged Saviour. This miracle resulted in a pilgrimage rush to see the sculpture. In 1740 a small chapel was built to house the statue, but it was soon realized that the building would be too small for the number of pilgrims it attracted, and thus Steingaden Abbey decided to commission a separate shrine. Many people who have prayed in front of the statue of Jesus on the altar have claimed that people have been miraculously cured of their diseases, which has made this church even more of a pilgrimage site .... The Wieskirche was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983 and underwent massive restoration in 1985-91.

Here are some pics ....

- the back of the church and the organ

- the Scourged Saviour

- front of the church, pulpit on the left

It's mesmerizing in an exploded wedding cake kind of way :)

In the Bulrushes

- Young Moses by Gustave Moreau

Here below is a poem I saw today, In the Bulrushes by Katha Pollitt ....

Lotus. Papyrus. Turquoise. Lapis. Gold.
A jackal-headed god
nods in the noon
that shimmers over the river
as if fanned by invisible slave girls.
Frogs fall silent , stunned
by the sun or eternity.
The Pyramids have been crumbling for centuries.

Snug in his bassinet of reeds
the lucky baby plays with his toes,
naked. What does he care
for his mother's eyes in a thorn tree?
Around his head an alphabet of flames
spells Thunder . Transformation.
Woe to women.

The sun begins its red plunge down the sky.
Deep in the earth a locust's eyes snap open.
Frogs resume their trill
And punctual to the minute
down the path,
tottering on jewelled sandals, comes
the beautiful lonely princess

who's wandered in from another kind of story.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Assumption

- The Assumption by Charles Le Brun

Coming up is the day when the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated (Saturday). I don't really know a lot about it, so looked it up - lots of interesting stuff, like ....

- The House of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, where some believe Mary lived with the apostle John until her Assumption if you're Catholic or her Dormition if you're Orthodox ...

- and Mary's Tomb near Gethsemane garden, where many Eastern Christians believe Mary was buried after her death (Dormition of the Theotokos).

Here's a bit on the difference between the Assumption and the Dormition of Mary from Wikipedia ....

The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven. Her tomb was found empty on the third day.

Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was "assumed" into heaven in bodily form. Some Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after Mary's death, while some hold that she did not experience death. Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), which dogmatically defined the Assumption, appears to have left open the question of whether or not Mary actually underwent death in connection with her departure, but alludes to the fact of her death at least five times.

Apparently it's against the law to not believe in the Assumption :) but I don't really find the idea convincing, still, whether her assumption happened or not, devotion to Mary has produced some beautiful art, architecture, and music ......

- Salve Regina by Gen Verde of the Focolare Movement

- Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Giovanni Bellini

-St Francis in Ecstasy

- Giobbe Altarpiece (Madonna with the Child, Saints and Angels), at the church of San Giobbe in Venice

Monday, August 10, 2009

Poetry and prayer

I came across an interesting talk on prayer by Steven Shakespeare, a priest in the Church of England and the chaplain at Liverpool Hope University (hat tip to Jonathan). It's long, but here it is ....


Speak to us of prayers
by Steven Shakespeare

(Given at "What shall we say?" at St Peter's Church Walworth: 9th Feb 2009)

As you might expect, I spend a lot of time on my knees.

Let me tell you about a couple of those occasions.

I am on my knees. Ben is not impressed. Poo has leaked out of his nappy up his back. I have it on my hands. I know I need to get his vest over his head and without getting poo in his hair and on his face. I know that I need to clean his bum and put a new nappy on. I know I need to stop him wriggling off the mat or putting his hands in the mess. I know I need something to wipe him with and a bag for the nappy and I know I got those things out before I started and now they are underneath me or underneath Ben or perhaps they have disappeared in the time space continuum. I know all this but I do not know, and I am panicking. 'O my God!' I say to no one in particular.

I am on my knees. Ben has managed to get the soap off me and then rub his eyes. This new sensation is really not all that much fun for him. He tries to stand up in the bath, screaming with pain and indignation. I am trying anything, duck impressions, funny faces, singing, it is like a children's TV show from hell. How's it going? calls Sally. Jesus Christ! I sigh.

I am on my knees. Ben is looking round expectantly. I start to chase him. He squeals with delight as he shuffles away then lets me catch and tickle him. He does the sign for more and speeds away again. My right knee hurts for some reason as I lumber off again. I wonder again about the wisdom of starting a family at nearly 40 years old. God help me, I groan.

Why am I telling you this? Am I trying to impress you with my parental credentials trying to convince you that I'm a good dad and a new man who gets his hands dirty. Hardly. I am sure that I am pretty mediocre as a parent. I am also sure that though I love Ben more than anything, there are times, oh God yes there are times, when I would rather be doing anything else than changing another nappy.

Of course I've not really dwelt on the many times in a day when we laugh together and get lost playing with his trains, or share a story, or go and feed the birds and have a go on the swings. It just seems that I don't really invoke God so much at those times.

'Speak to us of prayers,' I've been asked - and I feel I have to make a confession. I have to confess my unknowing. Do I, do we, really know what we are doing when we pray? Do we know whom we are addressing, or what language to use? Should we know? Is prayer about knowing those things? Or is it something else?

The time I spend on my knees with Ben, especially times I've described - they don't have much in the way of silence and serenity. They don't have much space for pebble stroking spirituality. But they have a power and a rawness and a fleshy, messy vulnerability, which, it seems to me, must be something to do with prayer. And so my little curses and complaints to God aren't just casual blasphemy. They really are prayers, even if I do not know it at the time.

They also say something to me about inclusion, and the process of writing what I rather pretentiously called Prayers for an Inclusive Church.

The most important thing I want to say is that inclusive language is about more than just changing the words. It is not about adopting a stance of neutrality, ironing out our pronouns, balancing our metaphors, whilst leaving the rest of the world unchanged. It is about a different approach to prayer, a different understanding of God, a different connection to others and to the earth. It is prayer embodied, wounded, desiring, touching, giving birth. A prayer with dirty hands.

Don't get me wrong. I think that language is vital. But language is more than a set of labels describing a world out there. It is creative. It shapes what we see and how we experience reality. It defines who is allowed to speak and on what terms. Word and world belong to one another. To change the way we speak and pray and promise is to change the way the world is. It is a risky business, because it unsettles our structures of power. It speaks another word, a word from elsewhere.

Christians should know this. After all, in our own myth of beginnings, in the story of genesis, it is the word that works with the Spirit and the welcoming womb of the deep to bring the world into being. It is the word made flesh which makes a new creation possible, flesh that is circumcised, touched, embraced, scourged, broken, renewed.

So I want to talk about how I think about writing and using inclusive prayers as a part of wider vision of what it means to believe in an inclusive God. I'm going to talk under three brief headings, and there will be a chance for you to reflect back your own thoughts, and time for some questions or comments at the end.

The three headings are: the wounded word; intervention and transformation.

The Wounded Word

I don't claim to write poetry. That would be far too pretentious. But I try to learn something from what poets do. Poetry dies if it is dissected, or boiled down to some trite meaning or moral. But there are ways of thinking about what poetry does which are perhaps more true to its power.

The philosopher Derrida writes of a paradox at the heart of the poem. On the one had it is something very particular. It is the product of an individual voice, which sounds from a very specific date and context. The very nature of poetry defies translation, because part of its essence is to draw our attention to the music and rhythm of language. The poem is a material process, something we feel beneath our tongue, not just a gateway to an abstract or spiritual truth. The poem is never pure.

However, there is another side to the poem, because it is also an act of communication. Although it is marked in its very being with its time and place of origin, if it is to speak to others, it must have an openness about it, it must reach out beyond itself. It works not only through the harmony of words, but through the spaces and silences between them, through the tensions and ruptures that create a new space in which to read the poem and the world differently, in ever new contexts.

Derrida compares the poem to the wound of circumcision. Circumcision happens at a particular date, a mark left on the body of a single individual. But its meaning escapes the possession of any one person, even the one to whom it happened. The mark is also a wound, an opening of the body to what is other.

I suggest that prayer shares this dynamic with poetry. I am not a fan of prayers made up by committees, or by any process that makes them, flat, abstract and disconnected from life. If prayers are a product of a collective process, then I think it is best if they come from a group that is self-aware, self-critical, committed to a vision. Otherwise, I think that prayer needs an individual voice. Why? Because it is about a relationship and a faith which can never become just another item of public knowledge. There is always something scandalous and particular at the heart of prayer: that I at this moment, in all my limitation, should address and be called by the infinite and the unconditional. Prayer is the moment when I am awoken, called - but the call only ever comes to particular flesh and blood people, with lives and loves and stories of their own. The otherness of God speaks to the otherness of each and every one of us.

The written prayer has to preserve something of that otherness. But in the process it must also reach out beyond the particular to engage with the lives and stories of others. It needs to offer a kind of space, in which others can find a lodging, in which they can hear the echo of a call addressed to them. Prayer by its very nature escapes the rules laid down by any church. Of course it is part of a tradition, and it will borrow its language and imagery. But if the prayer is also to be a little like a poem, it must express something unique, a truth that cannot be reduced to a dogma, an idea, a moral. A truth in relationship.

So I value those poets who write about prayer, and whose writing becomes a kind of prayer. I want at this point to draw your attention to the poems I have reproduced on the handout, from two favourite poets, R S Thomas and Carol Anne Duffy. I am drawn to them by the way in which the prayer they articulate breaks out of its containment in religiously approved channels. It becomes dispersed into the world, broken and offered under different forms and names. It is perhaps no coincidence that each poem speaks of darkness and the night: we are not dealing with the clarity of light, knowledge and certainty. There is an unknowing which is essential to the most faithful prayer.

I'll read the poems, and then I invite you to talk with one or two of your neighbours. What does each poem say to you about the nature of prayer? Where does it ring true What might be lacking?


Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

The Other by R. S. Thomas

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.


May the other come to you this day.
Let your prayers and hearts break upon him
as he is broken for you.

The word is wounded - language becomes eucharist: embodied, both strong and vulnerable, broken and shared. For me prayer is an invitation into that sacrament of the word made flesh.


But what does prayer do? you may be asking. What difference does it make? It's a good question, though we often look for the answer in the wrong place. Perhaps because we think that it is a matter of getting an answer.

I find myself increasingly at odds with the idea of a God who intervenes arbitrarily in the world because certain people or enough people pray for this or that to happen. I've heard people pray that the traffic might not be congested so others can attend a prayer rally, and I picture God dividing cars on the M25 like the waters of the red sea. I've heard tell of prayer for money, and the next day an envelope drops through the door with just the right amount. I have tried this myself and the only answer I get is that the cheque is in the post.

I have heard much more personal and moving stories of recovery from illness, of new purpose and direction all attributed to the power of prayer. I do not doubt that lives have been changed, but I wonder about this kind of power. As a symbol on which to focus gratitude I can understand it. But as a theory about God, it leaves a lot to be desired. It conjures an image of the divine controller, pulling the levers to determine what happens on earth. And always there is the resounding silence that settles over those whose prayer is not answered, those who do not recover. Always the individual successes are dwarfed by the reality: mass rape in the eastern Congo, genocide in Darfur, kids addicted to knives and drugs in our cities, a finance system driven instance by its own excess, children blown to bits in Gaza. The litany seems endless. No wonder we cling to crumbs.

But I think we have got things the wrong way round. As I put it in the introduction to my book, perhaps prayer is the intervention it asks for. Prayer is the point at which our words, our bodies, our communities express their longing and are addressed by God. God's call is not a guarantee of success or a plan that rides roughshod over our freedom. It is invitation. There is judgement in that invitation too, a judgement upon our preference for lies over truth, exclusion over hospitality, indifference over commitment. But it is the judgement spoken by the wounded word who offers his body and blood as food and drink.

Prayer opens our particular words, our bodies, our stories, to the other who cannot be contained by our definitions and preconceived ideas. God is not a bigger and better reflection of our own dreams to have control and domination over life (and one another), but a wholly other way, a wholly other kind of power.

It seems to me that an inclusive way of praying needs to be rooted in an inclusive theology. Of course, inclusivity is itself just an idea, and one that is open to abuse. If by inclusive I just mean that I have the truth and you are welcome to join me on my terms, then I am peddling the inclusion of empire. If I mean that all are welcome as long as everyone stops harping on about what makes them different, then I am selling the inclusion of the marketplace, which reduces everyone to the level of sameness, to being a consumer.

The inclusion I suspect is wanted by those of us here today is different: it is an intervention. It has to be worldly and incarnate and challenging, which is why it will focus on specific issues from time to time: what does it mean that my flesh is coloured white? Why have I been so unwilling to see that? What does it means to associate blackness with what is evil and negative? Why do I pity or deride those whose bodies depart from what I consider to be the norm? Why do I associate women with a fixed set of characteristics which stops me hearing what they say when they speak for themselves? What fear drives me to set up ideas of straightness, against which any other form of sexuality is judged deviant?

Inclusion intervenes. It is the process by which those at the margins redefine what it means to belong, what power is, what humanity is. It puts the time out of joint and identities under threat.

Prayer is the place where that threat comes home to us, and we discover that it is a gracious invitation to be challenged and changed. Our prayer life has to draw on many particular voices. A collection like the one I have written can be a help, but obviously it is only a partial resource, and many will find it does not work or resonate for them. The process of selecting, using and creating prayers needs to be a shared one, so the life of a community becomes enriched by new strands woven into the tapestry of its worship.

In my own case, I chose a certain set of constraints: to write prayers that reflected the set gospel readings over the common three year lectionary, along with extra material appropriate for a celebration of the eucharist for each season. It was a conscious decision. For one thing it made the collection more readily usable by those following the lectionary. But it also meant I had soil in which to root my own responses, in which my own voice could have a chance to engage with themes in the gospels that connected with where people find themselves in the world.

I have been enriched a great deal by theology and liturgy that comes from people and groups with a commitment to what I would call an inclusive vision of God. Many of you will know and use the prayers written by Janet Morley, Jim Cotter, the Iona Community and so on. They are all very different. What they share is a refusal to see prayer and faith isolated from the life of the body and the senses, from friendship, sex and desire, from real experiences of poverty, injustice and liberation. They also engage on a deep level with the Christian tradition, in a way which is both critical and creative - a living testimony to the call to proclaim the gospel afresh in every generation.

These are both resources and inspiration, for they invite us to reflect on the kind of communities of faith and prayer we are part of. Can we take the risk of sharing out the creation of liturgy, without our worship just becoming a hotch potch of personal preferences? This where I believe we need to hold on to a vision of inclusive theology. It will be a dynamic work in progress, not a set of fixed positions. But it will orient us, because it will focus on the God who lets life come into being without controlling it, who sets us free from the slavery of having our nature defined in advance, who crosses over the boundaries between male and female, slave and free, white and black, who is embodied in a form that is not perfect or normal, whose love resists the hold that all the empires of death claim to have over us.

Prayer is an intervention, because it opens us to the coming of this God, a God embodied in the earth and in the face of every other person we meet, a God therefore whose faces and names are many. This is not relativism and anything goes, but a costly faithfulness to what takes hold of us in grace and revelation.

For those of us who are part of churches which call for us to use authorised prayers in worship, there is of course a question as to how far we can go in using or creating other resources. Common worship does have a positive role to play in providing a shared language of prayer and protection from small cliques of clergy or others who wish to impose their own ways of worshipping on whole communities. However, common worship can never be a settled thing. And risks have to be taken. Without risks there would have been no rebellion against slavery, no votes for women, no end to an all male priesthood, and there will be no end to institutional homophobia.

Prayer is part of that risk-taking. I believe it should not just confirm us in a common and given identity, it should expose us to the other and to the limits of our generosity. As Kathy Galloway puts it, communities of hope are always being broken open - otherwise hope dies, community becomes conformity, faithfulness becomes submission to a hierarchy. When we pray, if we pray, empires should tremble and primates should not sit so comfortably on their thrones.

Even when we use the authorised words, of course, they offer rich resources for re-imagining our life together. Inclusive prayer needs to be inclusive of music, symbol, movement, colour, to ways of incarnating worship in the life of the world.

Time doesn't permit me to talk about this as it deserves. So let me ask you to reflect instead on some very short examples of (irregular and unauthorised) prayers that I have written, which are included on the handout.

One is a set of responses composed for a small prayer group of which I'm part. We meet monthly, and take it in turns to create a liturgy or reflection. Then we eat together. With the right marketing, it could be as big as the Alpha course.

This particular example I've offered is from a liturgy that reflected upon the surprise, mystery and new possibilities that are part of our encounters with others, in which we also experience a trace of the divine presence. The quote from the philosopher Luce Irigaray and the responses which follow are put together to suggest different ways to think about God - not just a change of image, but an invitation to change ourselves in the light of God's otherness.

The second prayer is one from Prayers for an Inclusive Church. It is the one for the second Sunday in Lent in year A, for which the set gospel is John 3.1-17, the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. It tries to draw on the imagery of that story to invite us into a place of transformation: the darkness in which we desperately seek knowledge becomes a welcoming womb, frozen idols are bypassed by a Spirit wild in its passion. In its brevity, I hope it intimates something of the open horizon for which we are born anew.

I invite you to read the prayers and then again discuss with your neighbour what resonates with you and what does not. You might also like to ask yourself: how would I articulate the otherness and freedom of God? What images or words would strike that chord?

From the opening of a small group prayer service on the theme of openness to the other:

Life always opens to what happens . . . A future coming not measured by the transcendence of death but by the call to birth of the self and the other. For which each one arranges and rearranges the environment, the body and the cradle, without closing off any aspect of a room, a house, an identity. (Luce Irigaray)

You will come like a thief in the night
And our hearts will be stolen away

You will come dancing on the other wind
And we will reel from the straight and narrow

You will come with strangeness in your touch
And our flesh shall long for your difference

You will come without a single name
And we will be unmade, unfinished, a wonder to ourselves

From Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Year A Lent 2, based on John 3.1-17

Holy God,
Whose wild Spirit's breath
Defies our frozen idols;
Take the night time of our fear
and make it a welcoming womb
for us and all the world.
Through Jesus Christ, in whom we are born anew.


I said I would talk under three headings: the wounded word, intervention and transformation. However I find that in addressing the other two themes, I have been talking about transformation all along.

Prayer does not leave us unchanged. On a level deeper then words, it embeds in us a way of relating to God. Unless we reflect on what we are doing with prayer, it would well deposit in us ways of relating to God which are unreal, alienating and oppressive. If God takes the risk of incarnation, it is not just to gave a thumbs up to the status quo, but to change it: from the margins, turning the world upside down and inside out, the word assumes and heals our whole humanity. All of it.

I am not saying we should make our prayers didactic, finger wagging exercises in saying the politically correct things. Nor should they become shopping lists of every social issue that we face. Such prayers risk remaining on the surface, alienating us further from grace. Inclusion too can become a doctrine and a dogma. Prayer always should open us to the other, test the boundaries of what can be known and said, and invite us into a space of deeper transformation. Of new birth, midwifed by the Spirit.

Earlier I mentioned the philosopher Derrida, who had a long and complex relationship with religious ideas and themes. He wrote once that he rightly passed for an atheist. However, he also confessed that he prayed all the time and that the constancy of God in his life found other names. At a conference, he was once asked about what prayer meant for him. He replied that his experience of prayer was always divided. On the one hand there was the child imagining a just father or forgiving mother. But on the other hand there was the sceptical adult, always asking what is this God? Is there such a God? Derrida argues that this questioning is not the opposite of prayer. He says 'these questions are part of my experience of prayer, and 'the suspension of certainty is part of the prayer'. It keeps open the otherness of God, stops us fixing God in advance. We might add that it stops us deciding in advance who reflects God's image

Prayer suspends our certainty. Not because we are paralysed by indecision, no: but because only in unknowing can we meet the other and be set free by their difference from us. By grace.

Prayer is this encounter. May it always surprise us.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

William Barry SJ, The Noonday Demon

- Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer

One of the books I picked up from the library is by Kathleen Norris and is about acedia. Here's what Wikipedia has on it ......

Acedia is a word from ancient Greece describing a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one's duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to but distinct from depression. Acedia was originally noted as a problem among monks and other ascetics who maintained a solitary life ......

In his sustained analysis of the vice in Q. 35 of the Second Part (Secunda Secundae) of his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas identifies acedia with "the sorrow of the world" (compare weltschmerz) that "worketh death" and contrasts it with that sorrow "according to God" described by St. Paul in 2 Cor. 7:10. For Aquinas, acedia is "sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good." It becomes a mortal sin when reason consents to man's "flight" (fugam) from the Divine good, "on account of the flesh utterly prevailing over the spirit." (ST, II-II, 35, 3). Aquinas's teaching on acedia in Q. 35 is rendered fully intelligible when read in light of his prior teaching on that to which the vice is directly opposed, charity's gifted "spiritual joy," which he explores in Q. 28 of the Secunda Secundae . As Aquinas says, "One opposite is known through the other, as darkness through light. Hence also what evil is must be known from the nature of good." (ST, I, 48, 1) ......

While looking for a review of the book, I found one by William A Barry SJ in America magazine. Here's a bit of it ......


The Noonday Demon
William A. Barry | OCTOBER 6, 2008
Acedia and Me
By Kathleen Norris

Leave it to Kathleen Norris to make an ancient and almost unknown word relevant to modern readers, believers or not. The poet and author of a number of best selling memoirs, such as The Cloister Walk and Dakota, which brought the wisdom of the desert monks and nuns and of the Rule of St. Benedict to bear on modern life, here brings close attention to her own experience and her immense reading to bear on exploring the nature of acedia, the “noonday demon,” as the basic temptation besetting the modern world. True to her calling as a poet she notes that the word acedia at root means a lack of care. In the noonday sun the monks of the desert were tempted to give up caring for their way of life and eventually for God. Norris is careful to distinguish acedia from depression, with which it has many similarities. She comes at the distinction from a number of different directions, among them the following: “A crucial distinction between depression and acedia is that the former implies a certain level of anguish over one’s condition, while in the latter it remains a matter of indifference” ......

Along the way the reader learns a good bit of healthy spirituality and theology as an antidote to much of the shallow tidbits of both that pervade modern life. Many have banished the word “sin,” for example, but often its real meaning is terribly distorted, not least because of a sadly truncated theological and catechetical teaching. A biblically sound notion of sin has to start with the knowledge of God’s abiding love. Sin can be understood only by those who realize that they are the apple of God’s eye, made in God’s own image. In other words, a Christian understanding of sin begins with a healthy self-regard. Only from that viewpoint can we see our sinfulness as a falling short of our best selves. Norris also notes that acedia was one of the eight bad thoughts that are not sins themselves but can, if they are not discerned and fought, lead us to fall short of our calling to be images of God. In time these bad thoughts became the seven deadly sins.

Norris writes that the shift from “thoughts” to “sins” led to an emphasis on acts rather than underlying dispositions. The monks expected to be besieged by bad thoughts; hence they encouraged paying attention to them to note their provenance and their outcome so as to discern them as leading human beings to becoming less human, less whole, less caring.

Jesus himself had noted that the problem was not so much our acts, but our dispositions: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (Mt 15:19-20). Also, in the move to seven deadly sins acedia was dropped. Norris believes that acedia’s loss of prominence allowed it to continue its deadly work with less restraint. I was reminded of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape reminds his young devil nephew that their policy is to keep their existence secret.

Commitment to a profession, to a marriage, to an athletic or artistic career or to any way of life requires the hard work of practice, often boring practice. It is such a commitment that acedia attacks so insidiously. When she was a teenager, Norris played the flute but hated to practice. Her teacher told her that she was an amateur. That’s the difference between someone who can bear the discipline of daily practice and routine and someone who cannot; the latter remains an amateur in the game of life. “The early Christian monks staked their survival on their willingness to be as God had made them, creatures of the day to day.” They saw clearly that the antidote to acedia’s blandishments was commitment to the discipline of developing good habits, another name for which is virtues. Our age flees from such commitment and finds, like ancient Rome in its decline, that it needs “bread and circuses” in order to stave off boredom.

Acedia and Me is not a book for the amateurs of life, but for those who take seriously their creation as images of God—God who cares enough to create our world and us and to pitch his tent within it and with us. For the sake of God’s world Norris has written this book. I hope that many will take it to heart.


Well, I haven't read the book yet - have another Israeli spy/art restorer novel to read first - but I'm I'm cautiously hopeful it's worth a read :)