Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Thoughts on the Feast-Day of the Conversion of St. Paul

Today is the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul. I've just been to lunch-time Mass in UCD. The priest, in his homily, said that God could make the most extraordinary changes in our life. He said that God didn't cancel St. Paul's previous personality, simply took his previously existing gifts and put them to His service.

Since I've started writing this blog post, I've realized that I actually wrote it already, two years ago. At least, I wrote a blog post on the same feast where I said much of what I intended to say here. So I'm just going to paste that in.

The only thing I really had to add is that I realize Groundhog Day, my favourite film of all time, is also the story of a conversion, albeit not a conversion to Christianity. (I've been writing an article about it, so it's been on my mind.)

Here's what I said this time three years ago:

As I've mentioned before, "the road to Damascus" is one of my favourite phrases in the whole world. It's up there with "softly falling snow", "the cold light of day", "down Memory Lane", and other phrases in which I can lose myself.

I'm also very interested in conversion. Some years ago an editor from a publishing house contacted me, suggesting we work on a book proposal for his editorial board. He was particularly taken with this post, on my idea of a man, and suggested fleshing it out to book length.

I didn't like that idea. In my work in a university library, I've recently found myself handling a lot of books about masculinity, and (even worse) "masculinities". They're the new thing, and they make me cringe a little. (The men's conference I posted about recently was my little joke. I think I underplayed the joke as everybody seems to have taken me seriously.) A blog post about masculinity is one thing. A whole book is a horrible thought. Feminism and women's studies are bad enough. Masculinism and men's studies are to be strenuously resisted! (Which is no criticism of those groups which exist to counter man-bashing in the media, universities and legal system.)

Anyway, that's all a digression. I suggested to him instead that we submit a proposal for a book on conversion, and I did a huge amount of work on the proposal. But, alas, they didn't think it would sell. (Maybe better, in the long run. This was a 'progressive' Catholic publisher, which would have been quite a mismatch.)

There is something mysterious about conversion, even when it comes to secular matters. The image of St. Paul dazzled by the light is an appropriate one. There always seems something irreducible about any conversion, something that can't be covered by any explanation, something that even the convert can't fully understand or articulate. One day, perhaps, I will write that book. In the meantime, I pray to St. Paul for many more conversions!

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Where's my Hovercraft?

John Waters (the Irish commentator, not the American director) sometimes seems a bit mad nowadays, but I still look at his "John Waters Unchained" email with interest. In a recent one he makes a point that has often occurred to me:

"In his 2011 book The Great Stagnation— How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, Tyler Cowen describes an America streaking ahead up to the end of the nineteenth century (free land and a host of technological breakthroughs like electricity, motor cars, air travel, railroads, harvesters, fertilisers, phonographs, telephones, household appliances, typewriters, tape-recorders, television and indoor plumbing) and then starting to slow down. ‘Today,’ he declares, ‘apart from the seemingly magical Internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953. We still drive care, use refrigerators and turn on the light switch.’

"It’s true [says John Waters]. When I was a schoolboy, we would get asked to write essays from time to time with the title, ‘Life in 2000 AD’, in which we would invent fantastic scenarios in which we, or our descendants, would swish around in hovercraft, live on food pills and spend our holidays on Mars. Yet, apart from the strange devices we hold up to our ears, anyone who died around 1960 would not, on returning for a (very!) brief haunting visit, find our modern homes or streetscapes all that puzzling."


Me again. I don't know what moral to draw from this, if any. I'm rather grateful for it because I prefer continuity to change. But the difference between 1960 and today seems much smaller than the difference between 1900 and 1960. G.K. Chesterton wrote that, once telephones had been invented, all other communications technology seemed just a variation on the same thing.

I remember in the early nineties, virtual reality was meant to be the next leap forward but that still hasn't really happened. I suppose "touchless technology" is making a big difference-- certainly transforming libraries-- but still a long way from hovercraft and teleporters. I was even surprised at one library conference to hear that libraries are facing challenges when it comes to VIRTUAL memory, which I had presumed was effectively infinite.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Old Ads Are the Best...

Probably not, actually, but I did spend a nostalgic evening recently looking at advertisements that took me back to my childhood, or teens. I know I've mentioned most of them before.

I wonder how many of these I watched, or heard, while I was playing with plastic soldiers or building blocks? Sadly, the television was our hearth. But it was better than being hearthless.

Nothing brings you back like ads, because they belong so totally to the moment. They're repeated often enough to sink into your memory, but then you never hear them again for years and decades. So it's not like songs from the era which you might have heard dozens of time since.

This 1986 ad for Bórd na Móna, a state company that sells peat briquettes, is probably my all-time favourite ad. It makes me dream of a path Ireland could have taken; modern and prosperous, but still traditional and romantic.

When this 1990 ad  for Tennant's beer was shown in Ireland, the words "my land" were substituted for "Caledonia". It's a neat little story, and it's rare that you see patriotism (in the literal sense "love of country") portrayed in advertisements. 

This ad (for Drifter chocolate bars, also from 1990) is funny and sweet. The character it portrays was probably hugely anachronistic even then. Despite it lingering in my memory for thirty years, I don't think I've ever had a Drifter bar.

Apparently the "cave-man" ads for Britvic fruit juice terrified me when I was young. I think I can kind of remember it. Here's one (the only one I can find) from 1983. It's hard to see what spooked me now. I remember them being visually a lot darker.

This 1984 ad about the dangers of domestic dogs savaging sheep (really) shows that Ireland was still an agricultural country back then. What kid would forget this one?

As the person who uploaded it says in the video description, everybody seems to remember this ad for the Electricity Supply Board from the 1980s.

The hardest thing to grasp about the past is that it happened one minute at a time, that it was as "thick" as the present. It's hard to realize that when we read history, but sometimes I find it hard to realize it even with my own memories. How often must I have seen each of these, for them to be so branded in my mind?

Friday, December 17, 2021

Beannachtai na Nollag!

I don't expect I'm going to be posting again until after Christmas, so I wanted to wish a very happy Christmas to all my readers.

Thank you for reading, for all the comments, for all the prayers, and for all the kindness in general.

And now over to good old Gilbert...

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected, and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.



Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Thank you!

Many thanks to whoever sent me the latest copy of The Brandsma Review! I have been enjoying reading it, especially the discussion on the Church in Germany, whose situation is far more intricate and nuanced than I imagined.

My only personal experience of Catholicism on the European continent was a Sunday Mass in Innsbruck. I was surprised at the size of the congregation (the church was almost full, I seem to remember), given that I had come to think of European Christianity as completely moribund.

I was also very interested by the review of Martin Scorsese's Silence, a film I watched rather reluctantly (all the reviews called it slow-moving and ponderous), but found far more entertaining than I expected.

I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing. Kudos to everybody involved!

Monday, December 13, 2021

Burn, Baby, Burn!

This blog is all about tradition, and it's time for another of this blog's own beloved traditions-- beloved by me, if nobody else!

I give you that timeless Chrismas classic, St. Robert Southwell's Burning Babe! 

Ben Johnson is reputed to have said that he would have gladly destroyed many of his own poems if only he could have written this one. I think it's a little marvel.

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

With God Things Really Do Change

I hope you are all having a rewarding Advent journey. (That sounds a bit corny, but I'll let it stand.) We put up the tree a couple of days ago. We had Christmas songs playing as we decorated it. It seems odd to me that, for such a saturated market, it only takes about two hours to run out of classic Christmas tunes! I'm afraid I am an incorrigible defender of Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade, not to mention Wonderful Christmas Time by Sir Paul. I may have alienated three quarters of my readers just by writing that.

Is there anything more beautiful than a Christmas tree? I'm not sure there is. They seem to combine and reconcile so many opposites; domesticity and collective social experience, art and nature, time and timelessness, convention and creativity, Christianity and paganism, light and darkness, jollity and melancholy, and any number of others.

Well, after praising Slade, I will redeem myself by some spiritual uplift. I very much liked this passage from the homily Pope Francis delivered in Athens, earlier this month:

By calling us to conversion, John [the Baptist] urges us to go “beyond” where we presently are; to go beyond what our instincts tell us and our thoughts register, for reality is much greater than that. It is much greater than our instincts or thoughts. The reality is that God is greater. To be converted, then, means not listening to the things that stifle hope, to those who keep telling us that nothing ever changes in life, the pessimists of all time. It means refusing to believe that we are destined to sink into the mire of mediocrity.  It means not surrendering to our inner fears, which surface especially at times of trial in order to discourage us and tell us that we will not make it, that everything has gone wrong and that becoming saints is not for us. That is not the case, because God is always present. We have to trust him, for he is our beyond, our strength. Everything changes when we give first place to the Lord. That is what conversion is! As far as Christ is concerned, we need only open the door and let him enter in and work his wonders. Just as the desert and the preaching of John were all it took for Christ to come into the world. The Lord asks for nothing more.

Let us ask for the grace to believe that with God things really do change, that he will banish our fears, heal our wounds, turn our arid places into springs of water. Let us ask for the grace of hope, since hope revives our faith and rekindles our charity. It is for this hope that the deserts of today’s world are thirsting.


Happy Advent!