Thursday, 18 June 2015

Having said nothing for a month ...

… I fully intend saying nothing today.

Yes, that's right. And here is why. Because today I am filled with an unChristian contempt for all the bullshitters, all of them from East to West who, within 48 hours of the leaking of Laudato Si', are already posting great analyses of the whole bloody thing. Really? It's nearly 40,000 words long! Come on!

No, and no, and no, and no! If you are one of those people already heaping praise on Pope Francis for perpetuating the Catholic Social Tradition, well, go and bury your head in the bloody garden. If you are one of those people who are lambasting him for sucking up to the mad, bad Greens, then, get your head out of your posterior orifice.

This is the internet: a self-appointed place for the Messieurs Whippy of Wisdom. How sick to death I am of the whole bloody know-it-all culture.

No, dear readers, we need at least a week, and possibly a month, to think it all through and tease out all the consequences.

But we cannot have the time, can we? Our age rushes head long into another week, having forgotten what happened last week, and even what happened yesterday. It is largely a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Shakespeare knew it centuries ago.

The worst thing about the internet? It's that you cannot even burn the bloody thing to keep warm. It just consumes things: joules of energy, human souls, intelligence, innocence and a whole load of other things.

Technology is neutral is it? Somehow I think St Thomas would have sided with Heidegger before Maritain.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Lifelike Marching

It is rare The Sensible Bond can bring you frontline reporting of any kind but I write these lines after returning from the March for Life in Birmingham. It was a grand old event, with appearances by Archbishop Bernard Longley, abortion survivor Gianna Jessen and, finally, an animated young speaker whose message was drowned out by a counter-protest, Obianuju Ekeocha.
I'm afraid we missed most of the day due to other commitments. We were alarmed in fact to arrive in Chamberlain Square in the centre of Birmingham to see about fifty people waving pro-choice banners, being stirred up by someone who was explaining that pro-life thought was "just shit". Her words, not mine. Heavens, I wondered, had we missed the pro-life protest and happened on their nemesis enjoying some afters?

Worse in fact! We had happened on a pro-choice protest just lying in wait to pounce upon the pro-lifers when they arrived. The funny thing was that as the pro-life march wound its way into the square, it did so with not really much regard for the pro-choice element who then spent the next hour or more trying to spoil proceedings. The were deftly ignored, although it must be said that from I was standing, nobody could hear a word of the pro-life speakers. The pro-choicers were held back by police, apart from one agitator who finally made an unsuccessful grab for the pro-life microphone, before being led away by a probably bored constable looking for something to do.
It was a very pleasant afternoon of sun in Birmingham. The mood was always lighthearted, in spite of the angry protesters who chanted things like "Keep your rosaries off our ovaries" and "Not the Church / Not the State / Women should decide their fate." To these mellifluous snatches, they added well-articulated criticisms like "religious scum", screamed at the passing lines of mothers with babies and habits of various hues (Franciscan, Dominican and secular). Yes, all things considered, a highly reasoned, subtle and incisive contribution to rational discussion. Funny how convention would determine that it was the pro-choicers representing the voice of reason ...

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Naughty pleasures, hatred and the loneliness of the long-distance priesthood

One of my naughtier pleasures when I'm down - as I often am these days - is to surf over to Mundabor's blog and see what he is ranting about. I love the man's lucidity, yet I deprecate his venom. For example, I appreciate his latest diatribe on a report provided by Rorate Caeli on the state of the German priesthood. If only half of what the report says is true, then I am even more aghast than I have been in a year of utter ghastliness. But then, Mundabor steps into venomous mode about the German priests in question:

I pity and despise them, because a priest who has chosen the habit and finds himself whining about his “loneliness” whilst he does not even have the time or the guts to be with Christ in the confessional, and in prayer, and in the life of sacrifice he is supposed to live is one who has betrayed the flag a long, long time ago, and is now unable to even remember how it looked like. (my emphasis)

Despise them? Well, it's a point of view. I'm not about to offer lessons to Mundabor in charity but if he isn't ashamed to despise somebody, he isn't half the Catholic he claims to be.

But then, he goes on to say:

I have never seen a good priest that looked lonely in the least. Their vocations and their love of the Lord fills their life.

Well, there, I'm not so sure. Maybe Mundabor has not seen good priests look lonely. Only he can say what he has actually seen. But if, as I understand it, the sense of this paragraph is that good priests don't get lonely, well, I beg to differ. In my experience, that is not so.

Undoubtedly there are many consolations for priests who live their vocations to the full. Being busy as a priest is a boon, and a deep prayer life probably fills many a gap. Good priest friends are precious and the chance to escape with them from time to time is probably essential to many a priest's sanity. Christ withdrew into the mountains with his friends. Why shouldn't priests? St John encouraged his disciples to dance. The bow that is always taut will lose its power.

But we cannot underestimate what a huge sacrifice celibacy remains, and not just because we all find the 6th and 9th commandments tricky. The challenge of celibacy is filling a void not created by lack of genital stimulation but by the sacrifice of the enjoyment of nuptial intimacy with another human being. Of course a priest can raise up his heart in faith to the divine lover, if he is gifted in that way. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the demands of celibacy. Everyone called to celibacy must live it as God gives them to live it. They are not all called to the charismatic heights of a St John of the Cross.

More than that, the priest is in such a difficult position socially. No wonder priests get lonely. They are forced to be the listening post of every liar and deceiver out there, not just in the confessional but in their day to day lives. By every liar and deceiver, yes, I'm afraid I mean every one of us. They are obliged to put up with everyone's spin, as if they had not heard it all before. They must be a spectator to everyone's performance, knowing the worst of many, suspecting the worst of others. How alienating that must be! And how one must long for honesty in one's fellow human beings! And how isolating, ultimately, such an experience must prove.

So, of course we should deplore the practice or lack of practice among German priests. The gap between what the Rorate report reveals and the ideals of the priesthood is embarrassingly large, not to say crushingly embarrassing. But even if Germany had the best priests in the world, they would still have the vocation of priests; they would still be up against the loneliness that must invade any honest man forced to be a spectator or a doctor of the world's deceit, or worse, of the deceit of the baptised.

All priest readers, be assured of my prayers. The wonder of your vocation is not that you manage to carry the crosses you make for yourselves. It is the that you manage to carry the cross that we, the faithful, represent.

The older I get, the more I sense how hateful I must be to the clergy. What a bloody burden, what a pain in the behind! They give it away in a hundred ways. In the stock questions that come in place of genuine interest; in their hesitancy to come to dinner; or even pass the time of day beyond the briefest of hellos. Lord, what salt in the wound we "faithful Catholics" must be!

Mind you, the older I get, especially under this papacy, the more I feel utterly, utterly alienated from the clergy at large. From anyone in authority really. With the man at the top so often blathering like a drunk who is being escorted home by embarrassed friends (even if, like a drunk, there are occasional moments of wonderful lucidity), so many good priests or bishops are left trying to spin gold out of Argentinian straw.

And then, there is the preaching. It's like being trapped in some loveless marriage having to listen to another ropey sermon, read out to us as if at some dodgy acting audition, terminated by an embarrassed silence at the end - the silence of those who are underwhelmed. Often I want to snatch the typed sermon from their hands, rip it up and beg them to speak to me from the heart like men! Cor ad cor loquitur, for heaven's sake! Funny how so few priests realise they speak ten times better when they speak extempore.

I know, I know! I am utterly hateful. My only hope is that our mutual prayers might help see us both home to heaven.

Pace, Mundabor, we cannot despise anyone, not even the least of our brethren. We should love even the worst, since God first loved "despicable us".

And all that said, as I remarked yesterday, "It is easy to hate oneself. Grace means forgetting oneself."

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The lanes of memory


This morning we are off to assist at the first Holy Communion of two small boys. We'll do our best to guide our own children through the ceremony, but since the boys are solidly in the squirming phase and my daughter in the '2 minutes-of-concentration-followed-by-5-minutes-of-scrapping-over-a-rosary' phase, the deed will be honoured more in the breach than the observance.

But it all takes me back to my own first Holy Communion close to 36 years ago. The memories are distant, but vivid vignettes still flash through my mind at times. I remember arriving at church in my white shirt, shorts and pumps and white tie as thick as kitchen roll. I remember being shocked that one boy wore brown sandals. Brown sandals on first Holy Communion day! It didn't augur well. The ceremony was Novus Ordo, though reverent enough in its own way. I remember being among the bidding prayer readers, standing in the sanctuary to monotonously bellow out something typed out in purplish ink on a slip of paper, and feeling for the first time what knees knocking together in fear was actually like.

I'm sure my thanksgiving was long and extremely garrulous. I'm sure it was one of the best of my sorry excuse for a spiritual life. Thence back to school for ice cream and jelly, followed by a family meal where we younger ones had to leave the chairs for older guests and sit on a rough wooden bench instead. The splinters dug into my bare, spindle-like legs.

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I always find it curious what details stay in the memory. As adults we impose a particular order and disposition on what we do for our children, but subjectivities are subjectivities. I say this concerns children. I suppose it concerns adults too. Several times I have learned - often years later - that I had gravely offended someone by something I said, but without having any recollection of the event, the words or why I would have said what I said.

Memory is the poorer cousin of intellect and will in the spiritual life. In many ways, memory is neglected because its abilities are thought to be amoral. One either has a good memory or a bad one. It is a psychological capacity and not a virtue as such.

Yet memory sews up the deliberate acts of yesterday with the person I am today. Memory leads me back to paths I have learned about, even when I have not thought of them for years.

More than that, memory is invested in the kind of synthesis that makes us creatures steeped in the sensory and the imaginative. Often how we remember a thing is directly related to how we felt about it at the time, or the totemic importance certain objects achieved through experience. We talk so casually about the faith being 'incarnational' but not enough about the faith being memorial - I mean memorial not in any sense related to the Mass but related to our recollection. Our faith is not just principles remembered or memorised but experiences undergone, whispers of sound or wafts of odours, insights seized and cherished in a moment of inner vision

And it is surely true that there is some essential relationship between recollection as an active process of remembering and recollection as a passive state of concentration. Something tells me that remembering who we are and what our responsibilities are is directly connected to our willingness to recollect ourselves. Not having the time to be recollected is not having the time to recollect the import things. To recollect then is both a reflexive verb (done to ourselves) and a transitive verb (done to our experiences). Without the former, we risk losing a grip on the latter, and without the latter we are in danger of losing who we are.

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Paradoxically, however, this road of recollection and responsibility seems to be a two way street. If we must recollect ourselves, it is as equally important to forget ourselves, to cite those wonderful words of Bernanos at the end of Journal d'un curé de campagne:

"It is easy to hate oneself. Grace means forgetting oneself."

In other words, one can forget oneself and be an embarrassment to oneself and others. Or one can forget oneself and be the self-effacing balm that enables others to flourish. Beati humiles.

Speaking of memory and self forgetting, we learned this week of the passing of Mr Ronald Warwick. Ronald was the author of The Living Flame: the first twenty-five years of the Society of St Pius X in Britain. He was a man of exemplary charm and good humour, in spite of the arthritis that he suffered from. He was loved by his pupils at the SSPX's St Michael's school. I have not seen him perhaps for over ten years but I remember a constantly good natured and erudite man - a charitable man who I think worked very hard not to treat people openly as the idiots he probably thought they were - who could chat happily about the familiar and the abstruse, everything from cigarettes to Charles Lamb. The first generation of traditionalists has been passing away for some time now. And I for one am unconvinced that the title of traditionalist is proof of the ability to remember things are they really were.

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Please say a prayer for the two little boys making their first Holy Communion today, and for Ronald Warwick, his widow, daughter and extended family. As for the boys, I have no doubt the attention of several of their siblings and friends is fixed firmly not on the liturgy but on the large-scale bun fight scheduled for after the ceremony. I have no doubt they will be offered myriad cards and object of the most impious and offensive tastelessness. Oddly, neither adult nor childish agendas will determine how these lads will remember the day as such. The boys will be as they are before God in their souls, welcomed into those enormous spaces that Eucharistic belief opens out within a human heart, and all the while still present to the smaller tangible world around them. How God conjugates with any individual's experience is a mystery only dimly captured in the theology of grace and the Gifts. But that He does so - in a way perhaps barely even perceived by the communicant - on first Communion day is a mystery beyond all doubt.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Effing the ineffable

I read a rather wonderful quotation from Mark Twain this evening:

If you do not read a newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read a newspaper, you are misinformed.

I hate quoting Twain but the fact is that the old sod was right about a number of things. He certainly said them more pithily than many can. Which is a nice way of saying that sometimes the devil has the best tunes.

The reason Twain's epigram me struck me so much was because I've been reflecting on how many dreadful stories cross our screens these days, how much righteous indignation we are called on to vent, and yet how much, in my own professional experience, the devil is in the detail. There's that devil again! I am not saying, for example, that there is any excuse for the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile, but what don't we know about the situation? That's the problem. The apparent put down of Chilean "theologian" Jorge Costadoat turns out not to have been quite what it was first portrayed as. Everyone is astir about the pope's alleged blocking of a gay nominee as French ambassador to the Vatican, but what don't we know yet? And don't get me started on Cardinal Daneels (don't read that link if easily shocked) for whom, however, there might yet be an explanation. Let us pray at least there can be mercy.

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I've written about the Punch-and-Judy nature of internet debate before, especially in the Catholic world, and of how much it reminds me of the theatre of the absurd. But what I'm getting at in this post is that the steady flow of news in which we now live, like fish in a fast-flowing sewer, is only hypothetically reliable. I suppose the burden of reliability has always accompanied reporting. What makes it so tricky now is that news travels so far and so fast; give a lie 24 hours start and we'll never catch it.

The risks of this kind of information environment are all the greater when we are faced with crises the like of which are barely precedented. This is not just a challenge for people who report the news but also for people, like your servant, who try to interpret it. The certainties of epistemology in the Catholic tradition were forged in the context of the natural world naturally "intelliged". The cultural environment of the internet is another thing entirely, full of false pistes and misinformation, travelling faster and more dangerously than the space junk that orbits the earth at thousands of kilometres per hour. Not all matters are equally (un)certain; Aristotle's adage on that point still pertains. But those unknown unknowns are beginning to haunt my mind.

In a context where we are looking for certainty, the dangers are, therefore, all the greater. It is not that contemporary Church history cannot be understood. It is just that our methods are so partial, our velocity so great, and bizarrely, our memories are so short. That is of course what the legend of Thamus promised: those that write everything down - and what is the internet if not a very long text? - are condemned to forget it.

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I make this point with another concern in mind - a concern which has been growing now for some time. The fact is that the powerful get nowhere without riding on the backs of the anxieties of you and me. I have never read Machiavelli's The Prince but I bet there is a chapter in there specifically about this very issue.

For example, I was more than happy last week to lend my name to the letter in support of priests who have called for the upholding of traditional disciplines concerning marriage and the Eucharist. So far, so good. But we are all so innocent. What, I ask myself, just what bricks will be forged, what leverages will be achieved, out of all our anxieties by the mongers of power?

We all get indignant. In our evil times, that is only natural. But there is another breed among us, quite common, who I want to call the enthusiasts of indignation. Need I explain? And what the enthusiasts of indignation - and how many they are! and how extremely boring they are! - do not understand is that the devil (him again) makes work for idle anxieties. We used to think that the biggest problem we faced was that, in the pre-internet age, the truth took decades to get out there. The naive corollary of this proposition is to think that if only the truth gets out there now, all will be well. Publish a book. Write a letter. Picket the nuncio!

Humanum errare est. This is not so. The truth, as far as we know it, is out there about Cardinal Daneels, and it makes no difference. The truth, as far as we know it, is out there about Bishop Barros, and it makes no difference. And the conclusion I am slowly working towards is that the conflict we are in is as much about leverage as it is about truth. It doesn't matter what you know, Danny boy, it matters what you can prove. Prove in the sense of impose.

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I'm really concerned about our vulnerabilities. Vulnerable people - and concerned Catholics are showing all the psychological signs of deep vulnerability - are ripe for manipulation. The devil's of course. And that of the powermongers. But our vulnerabilities need the medicine of Christ, rather than the medicine of crisis.

Yes, of course we should write and sign letters. Of course we should write (and read) blogs. But we should not do it because telling the truth will sort out all our problems. When all is said and done, when all the errors are refuted, we will still be left in the swirl of power agendas and manipulative causes.

As I often say to Mrs Ches, it's never about what it's about. We have feared untruth. We ought perhaps to fear calculation just as much. Our indignations make us the dupes of the devil. And our reactions risk feeding fires we that will have no idea how to control.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Dawn

"It isn't a matter of reason; finally, it's a matter of love."

My wife took my daughter and sons to 'Children's Stations' on Friday morning. My daughter is only three years old and, like all three year olds, she is very cute and always potentially embarrassing. Thus, during one particular moment of quiet reflection, perhaps around the twelfth station, she turned to my wife, beamed her a grin, and said out loud, "Is it the weekend?"

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I suspect I'm too old to say such a thing. Or at least, I've grown too old and am in desperate need of age reversal therapy. If I think about the weekend, it's purely in term that, as luck would have it, have been happily preserved in song. It's so long since we had some music on The Sensible Bond, but take it away, Mr Richard Thompson.



Wednesday just won't go; Thursday goes too slow. And I flee towards the weekend. I could blame the appalling working conditions that afflict all our contemporaries whose capacity for liquefaction is constantly tested. We are all liquid these days, poured into the nooks and crannies that the rhythms of accelerated modernity beat into our reddened nerves. My boss announces it with triumph when he has a day of back-to-back meetings with hardly a minute for the needs of nature, let alone the needs of being human. And thus, I flee, we flee.

Or possibly, that should be one of those irregular verbs:

I flee towards the weekend,

You are working too much

He's a workaholic.



But, as ever, I digress.

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Easter Sunday is upon us. Many liturgical feasts declare their days to be Hodie - today. The day of eternity. We are taken from our time and whisked forward to the eternal weekend of God. I'm thinking about the Magnificat Antiphon of the feast of Christmas: Today, Christ is born. Today, the Saviour has appeared. Today, the just exult. Liturgy as time machine, taking us on a journey that we embrace, a ticket to an eternal resting place.

What is different about the Easter liturgy is that this process goes in reverse. Haec dies quam fecit Dominus . This is the day that the Lord has made. We do not go rushing forward in joy to eternity. We do not even go fleeing from the sorrows of this life or its appalling contemporary rhythms.

Rather, the eternal day comes to us. Haec dies … let us rejoice and be glad in it. Rejoice in the day. This day, our day, made eternal by the resurrection. God's divine action breaking into history and reversing the process of death.

The victory over death is not some strange land to which we travel. It is the transformation of our own sorrowful state by God. Two poetic voices come to mind as I write these lines. The first is that of the tragic poet John Berryman who wrote (I quote it, like Chesterton, from memory, and possibly inaccurately):

I believe in the resurrection appearances to Peter and Paul
As firmly as I believe I sit here in this blue chair.


The resurrection is not unearthly like some strange cult invented by a huckster. It is as mystical as our solid surroundings, and, why not, our blue furniture, fraught with the meaning not of our intentions but of God's. Some people doubt the miraculousness of the ordinary - or ascribe it to some kind of heresy - but unless our theology forces God to create, there must be a givenness even about the most quotidian of experiences and objects that, somehow, at its roots, is evocative of the grand 'fiat' of the Creator.

The second poetic voice is that of Malcolm Guite who captures something of this ordinariness, the dailiness, of the resurrection in his poem Easter Dawn. A happy Easter to all readers. I'll leave you with the words of Guite.

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves
And now he blesses hers who stood and wept
And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s
Last touching place, but watched as low light crept
Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs
A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.
She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,
Or recognise the Gardener standing there.
She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,
Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light
That brightens as she chokes out her reply
‘They took my love away, my day is night’
And then she hears her name, she hears Love say
The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

In support of our priests, our families, and our Church

Guest post

You may have seen the recent letter from more than 450 priests in support of the Church’s teaching on marriage.

We would like to invite you to sign the letter below, to be sent to the press in support of them, and to encourage others to sign it.

To sign, please leave your name and your diocese in the comments box below, or if you prefer email them to me or to one of the coordinators:

Mark Lambert or Andrew Plasom-Scott.

The Letter

Dear Sir,

We, the undersigned, wish to endorse and support the letter signed by over 450 priests in the recent edition of the Catholic Herald.

As laity, we all know from our own family experiences, or those of our friends and neighbours, the harrowing trauma of divorce and separation, and we sympathise with all those in such situations.

It is precisely for that reason that we believe that the Church must continue to proclaim the truth about marriage, given us by Christ in the Gospels, with clarity and charity in a world that struggles to understand it.

For the sake of those in irregular unions, for the sake of those abandoned and living in accordance with the teachings of the Church, and above all for the sake of the next generation, it is essential that the Church continues to make it quite clear that sacramental marriage is indissoluble until death.

We pray, and expect, that our hierarchy will represent us, and the Church’s unwavering teaching, at the Synod this autumn.

Yours faithfully.