Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A Sense of Place (I)

A Sense of Place is the title of a coffee table book for which I researched and wrote some potted contributor biographies, back at the dawn of the millennium. I didn't get mentioned on the acknowledgements page, much to my chagrin (although I'll admit my research was not outstanding). I've never read the book.

The title is a natural fit for this blog post, as well, since it's exactly what I'm going to write about. I've touched on this theme in a recent post, and I'm going to rehash some of what I've said there in this one. 

Place has both baffled and fascinated me all my life. Chesterton wrote in one poem that "the first surprises stay", and this is my experience. Time and space are universal features of human existence, but that doesn't make them any less mysterious.

In one poem, in my teens or twenties, I described time as "a foreign natural element". I feel the same way about place.

What is a place? China is a place. Baker Street is a place. A child's wigwam is a place. So is a room in a doll-house. The inside of a vein or artery is a place.

Indeed, this blog is a place. What else could it be? It's impossible to talk about the internet without using spatial metaphors. This usage predated the internet, of course: think of the phrase "Watch this space", which is not an injunction to remain staring at the same piece of paper for an indefinite time.

Place is something concrete and yet also something vague at the same time. Debates over what constitutes central Europe, the home counties, the Deep South, and similar regions are never-ending (and delightfully so).

Wherever you are, you are somewhere-- somewhere in particular, somewhere different from everywhere else in existence, even if it's completely nondescript.

I find it hard to comprehend the reality of place. This is a strange thing to write, because it's hard to imagine how things could be any different. But in spite of this, the sense of strangeness persists.

How to convey this? I'll do my best.

First off, I've always felt a sneaking incredulity that other places actually exist. Of course, I don't rationally doubt their existence, but they seem unreal to me. I can remember writing about this in a diary entry in my twenties, after a discussion about Indonesia during a class in college.

I put this idea to someone I know, as I was writing this passage, and he told me he recognized this mentality. He said that, when he was visiting Paris, he'd looked at the Seine and felt a sense of surprise that it was real. So perhaps it is not so uncommon.

It's hard-- for me at least-- to accept that Helsinki and the Orkney Islands and Greenland are actual physical realities, with people walking around in them right now as I type. The idea that I could just get on a plane and go to any of these places seems bizarre to me. Somehow they seem like places only accessible through the imagination or the television screen.

In a milder form, this sense of incredulity applies to even the most ordinary places, once I'm outside them. In a certain way, every place seems unreal to me except the place I happen to be occupying at the present moment.

I even wrote a poem about this:


When dawn was breaking I lay in the embrace
Of duvets and pillows. The whole world was a place
Of warmth and softness and the dregs of dreams.
That was today. How far away it seems!

When morning came I stood in the chilly street
And dreamed of softness and enveloping heat
And watched for a bus. The sky was all-aglow.
That was today. It seems so long ago.

When day was fully-grown, I knelt in prayer
As the priest’s familiar words brazened the air
At the lunch-time Mass. Only the house of God
Seemed real then. Already it seems odd.

Wherever I go, this thought hangs over me;
Nothing exists except what I hear and see
That very moment. Beyond yonder wall
Is nothing to be seen; nothing at all;

As though the world was simply scenery
Changed by invisible hands we cannot see
As act follows act. Oh, what mind can embrace
The weird plurality of time and space?

But perhaps this poem expresses my own way of thinking rather than anybody else's.

My sense of direction is catastrophically bad. It would be hard to explain just how bad it is. When I tell people I have a terrible sense of direction, they always underestimate just how bad it is and think I must be exaggerating for effect. But I'm not. For instance, I have walked through Dublin city centre innumerable times, but I consistently forget the exact sequence of even the most central streets. This can be very embarrassing.

My poor grasp of geography is theoretical as well as practical. I would be unable to place most countries on a map, even most European countries. Whether this lack of knowledge stems from a genuine inability to learn, or whether it stems from some kind of mental block or lack of curiosity, is something I don't know. But I've made quite a few efforts to overcome it, and always failed so far.

For many years, my lack of geographical knowledge made me resent the very concept of geography, to the extent that I was contemptuous of the subject and considered it the province of bores. I was particularly irked by travel bores, and resolved I would never travel. I pretended to despise travel, although my avoidance of it had at least as much to do with trepidation as it had to do with disdain.

It's been a very delayed reaction, but the fact that place seems such a strange concept to me has, after so many decades, finally gave me a fascination for it, rather than disdain.

Although I disdained geography, the concept of place has always fascinated me, and in very particular ways.

Here is one. I was sitting on a bus, one evening-- I forget how many years ago, but it was probably at least a decade ago-- and I heard someone say (on their phone): "We're just coming into Westmoreland Street now." (Or whatever street is happened to be.) And I was struck (though not for the first time) by a sense of wonder at the fact that the name of a street, or any other place, corresponds to an actual place, to a physical reality.

This is hard to convey. It's not quite the same idea I was describing earlier in the post, though of course it's related.

Here is the thing. When the person on the phone said the name "Westmoreland Street", a particular image (or set of associations) would have come into his mind, and into the mind of the person he was calling, and into the minds of anyone who was listening. For everybody, the images and associations would be different.

So Westmoreland Street is an idea, a set of associations-- but it's also a real place. And while you can "go" there by naming it or thinking about it, you can more literally go there by travelling there. It's the correspondence between the mental Westmoreland Street and the actual Westmoreland Street which fascinates and delights me. They are not the same but the connection between them is not arbitrary, either. We are often told that such-and-such a place is "not a place, more a state of mind". But every place is also a state of mind. There is something magical about this, something infinitely mysterious and elusive.

Well, that's enough for now. I will return to this topic soon.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

On Friendship

I've just finished reading (or browsing) The Oxford Book of Friendship for the second time in a few months. I came across it on the book exchange shelf outside the library.

I love themed anthologies of this kind, and I plan to read more of them. I love to survey life from some particular angle, under the companionable guidance of the anthologist.

Unsurprisingly, the book has got me thinking about friendship-- a vast and many-sided subject. The various authors quoted in the anthology make many claims and observations about friendship. I'd imagine most readers would have the same response as me to most of these claims: "Well, I wouldn't say that...." "But what about such-and-such?". "True, but..." 

Is there any subject more impervious to generalisation than friendship? It's ambiguous and elusive by its very nature.

Friendship is especially interesting to me because I don't take it for granted. I didn't really have any friends until I was in my mid-twenties. I was so shy and withdrawn as a child that I barely spoke to anyone. My only friends were my siblings and my cousins.

In my teens, I started playing street soccer and "hanging out" with some neighbourhood kids. I suppose I did become friends with some of them, but it was a distant kind of friendship. Still, it left me with some magical memories, such as swapping jokes and ghost stories on a darkened field, after it had become too dark to kick a football around.

It's funny how friendships progress. I can remember myself and my younger brother asking a group of boys around my age (my brother was younger) if we could join their kick-about. They told us (in a not unkindly manner) that it was too "crowded"-- three boys kicking a ball in a large field! Eventually, we did become friendly with them, and I can remember them trying to persuade me to come with them to see True Lies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I actually rebuffed many overtures of friendship, through shyness, over the years. This didn't make me feel any less friendless by necessity, strangely enough.

That was the closest thing I had to friends until well into my twenties. In college, I declined all the invitations to join my classmates in the pub-- again, through shyness. I got on with them well enough, but didn't make any friends per se. One girl told me, years later, that she found me confusing because I was outspoken in class but very quiet otherwise.

It was only when I got a permanent job (the one I have now) that I began to make friends. Indeed, I'd say that about half of my friends are friends I made at work.

I find it difficult (almost impossible, in fact) to initiate a conversation with a stranger, unless there is some solid pretext for doing so. I'm envious of people who can simply chat to the person next to them in a pub, or in the supermarket queue, or in some other place. So, if I'm going to make friends at all, it will usually be people with whom I am thrown together for some extended period of time.

I'm very slow to call someone my friend-- not out of reluctance, but out of shyness. It's generally other people who take the initiative in this regard.

What is a friend? I pondered this a lot in my friendless years. It seemed to me that invitations were the key. If somebody invited you to their home, they were your friend. If someone invited you to a party, they were your friend. If somebody invited you to a wedding or to go on holiday with them, they were your friend. Since I never got any invitations, it followed that I had no friends. Friendship became something exotic and coveted in my mind-- like a private jacuzzi. I wondered what it must feel like, to blithely refer to somebody as your friend.

People would sometimes ask me if I was lonely. I wasn't particularly lonely, but I was horribly ashamed. Not having friends seemed like a terrible failure, an indictment of my very self. I wondered what friends spoke about to each other. Looking back, it's obvious that my painful shyness was the reason I had no friends, but I didn't accept this at the time. I simply assumed I had nothing interesting to say, or that I didn't understand humour, or something like that.

I didn't mean to dwell on my personal experience, and I don't mean to be self-pitying or embarrassingly confessional. It may be that those years of friendlessness had some good effects. I believe they did. 

Well, I have made friends since-- good friends. For this, I am very grateful. I don't take them for granted. At the same time, if I somehow ended up friendless again, I don't believe I would be as desolate as I was the first time around, or take it to heart in the same way.

I've also lost friends. I was looking through my wedding album the other day.  Many of the guests are people I would no longer consider friends, either through drifting away from them or through alienation. One wedding guest had been a fairly close friend, but she grew increasingly shrill in her feminism and her anger against men and white people (though she was white herself). Every now and again I would check out her latest screed on Facebook and I eventually unfriended her there, hoping I would never run into her again in real life, either.

It was her anger that alienated me from her, not her political views. I would not debar someone from friendship on account of their political and religious views-- as long as they did not let those views consume them with hatred and anger.

So what about the criterion I had come up with for friendship-- that the measure of friendship is invitations? I think this is a fairly good measure, but not an infallible one. For one thing, I've often been in houses or at social events with people who I wouldn't consider friends.

The Oxford Book of Friendship was published in 1991, when the internet had barely taken off. It's reassuring that it finds a place for epistolary friendship, something that has a long and rather prestigious tradition. So it's not so ridiculous to have "friends" you've never actually met, which is rather common today. Still, it seems reasonable to say that face-to-face friendship is preferable to friendship via some medium or other, everything being equal.

Some friends are good at keeping in touch when they move away, or when they go on holiday. Some are not. I have one good friend who is very stimulating and funny in conversation, but whose emails don't reflect his personality at all, and would even seem curt and cold except I realize this is how he expresses himself in writing.

When I think about friendship, and what differentiates it from other relationships, I keep thinking about calm. Friends are people we can be calm around. We don't have to constantly fret about them taking offence, or misunderstanding us, or being bored by us. We don't feel the need to perform. Having said I don't take friends for granted, it occurs to me that, in a certain sense, the very essence of friendship is that you can take a friend for granted, in a certain way.

I remember reading a novel in which the protagonist, sharing a drink with a friend, reflected that the man bored him but that it was a pleasant kind of boredom. I've had similar experiences-- sometimes I've found myself listening to a friend, reflected that nothing they were saying particularly interested me, but that there was nothing irksome about this. Similarly, we can sometimes suspect we are boring our friends, but feel confident this is not going to turn them against us.

There's something about friendship which resists, or even resents, too much analysis. The Oxford Book of Friendship reproduces several letters in which friends write about their friendship to each other. I admit this makes me squirm a little. Perhaps this is reaction is distinctive to me. Perhaps the lack of friendships in my past makes me unwilling to analyse friendship too closely in case it withers under examination. Or perhaps is it is that so much of friendship consists of that which is unspoken that putting it into words might damage it-- like explaining a joke.

I've always thought of authorship as a sort of friendship between the author and the reader. Indeed, few things are quite as companionable as the private, unique encounter between any given writer and any given reader-- though they may be separated by centuries and the most disparate circumstances. So I will finish this blog post, dear reader, by saying that I very much consider you a friend, whoever you are, wherever you are, and whenever you are reading this.

A Nice Surprise

This morning I was surprised by a gift in the post from an anonymous benefactor, one I am very much looking forward to reading. It's Give Us Back the Bad Roads by John Waters.

Thank you! I will make sure to review it here!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Five Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know!

This is exactly the sort of article I was writing about a few blog posts back, the sort of article that (I think) adds to the stresses of life by telling us another little thing we should know, do, see, eat, etc. etc.

The author concludes: "The Bible is the most incredible book. All of us have only begun to dip our toes into the vast depths of its riches. Obviously it is an amazing blessing to have the Bible translated into English. But as our language and vocabulary continue to morph, it is worth our time to seek out the original, precise meaning of key words. We want to make sure we are accurately hearing what God is saying."

Yes. But there are so many other things people should do and attend to. It's never ending.

I think an article like this is very fine in terms of its content. It's the headline I object to.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Belfast Memories and Reflections

Back in October, I travelled to Belfast to give a talk based on my book, at a Legion of Mary young adult's conference. The text of the talk can be read here. Someone suggested in a recent comment on another post that I should write about my impressions of Belfast. It's a good idea, so I'm happy to oblige.

I have done very little travelling in recent years, so my trip to Belfast was a big day for me. It was also my first time north of the border, hard as that may be to believe. In fact, I found the entire experience so stimulating that I spent most of the next day writing it up in my diary-- both the trip itself, and the reflections it prompted.

Before going any further, I should say something about my unusual relationship with geography. First off (and to repeat something I have often said on this blog), I have a lifelong fascination with the idea of place, and a deep yearning for distinctive and special places-- I mean, for their very existence. Whether this fascination came from anywhere is impossible to know-- I don't see why it needs an explanation. But, in any case, it was certainly fed by stories of fantastic journeys, whether that was The Lord of The Rings, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, or Ulysses 31, the Japanese cartoon that transposed Greek myth into space.

But my actual sense of place is catastrophically bad-- so bad, I will struggle to convey it to the reader. When people ask me if I know such-and-such a place in Dublin, and I say I don't, it often draws the response: "Are you a Dubliner at all?". I remember, in primary school, the teacher used to pull down a huge laminated map of Ireland, and try to get us to memorize the counties, rivers, lakes, and so forth. To me, this seemed as impossible as walking on the ceiling-- none of it would stick at all.

And I still struggle with this. For more than a year now (easily), I have been taking an online Irish geography quiz every few days. In this quiz, one has to place various counties on the map. There are fifteen questions, and I usually get twelve to thirteen of them right-- this despite the fact that are only thirty-two counties in Ireland, and I have taken this quiz innumerable times by now.

And this incapacity to remember places dogs me even on the smallest scale. I am very often unable to give people very simple directions-- even within the walls of the library, where I have worked for close to eighteen years. When someone asks to be shown the music shelves, for instance, I have to bring them there, rather than give them directions. So even when I know how to get somewhere, I'm unable to describe how to get there.

I am making a big effort recently to develop a better sense of place-- of actual places. This involves constant conscious effort, like noticing street names when I pass them, and not mentally filtering place names out of news stories, films and books.

I'm not complaining. Perhaps this handicap adds to my sense of wonder, my sense of the mysteriousness of space and time.

Finally, when it comes to my sense of place, there is another contradiction to be taken into account. I have worried about globalization all my life, long before I even knew the word. Even when I was a small child I was worried that there was nowhere left to explore, and ardently wished there were more than five continents. By my teens I was fretting that everywhere was becoming homogenized. And yet, I am insensible to many of the things that do differentiate place from place. I have a very poor eye for nature, wildlife, architecture, car design, fashion, and many other aspects of everyday existence. I have a poor ear for accents, and a poor tongue for cuisine. 

So whether there is any value to an account of my trip to Belfast might fairly be doubted!

Here is my account of the journey from Dublin, drawn from my diary. As you'll notice, scupltures especially caught my eye, since I have become more and more interested in public sculpture:

I was amazed at how long the Port Tunnel was. It just seems to stretch on and on. I enjoyed looking out at the landscape, as we moved out of Dublin. No matter how little of Ireland I feel is left, the landscape endures, and that's something. Now, however, it seems like a spurned idyll.

We passed a sign for Mellifont Abbey, and signs for various rivers I've never heard of. I saw a mesh sculpture of a bull with its head down near a sign for Dundalk. (It's at the Cooley Peninsula, it's called An Tarbh Donn, and it was put up when the M1 was built-- it represents the Cattle Raid of Cooley.) 

I was so happy to see cows and sheep in fields, though the sight does rather make me guilty for eating meat. There was another sculpture near a sign for Bernish Viewpoint-- a kind of scrap-metal woman by a scrap-metal house. There was a Hunger Strikers memorial in Newry-- ten white crosses and the date 1981, stark and impressive. Newry was very republican, it seemed. There was one sign which showed drawings of the 1916 leaders and the text: "We salute the "men of violence" of 1916." In fact, there were a great many tribal symbols in Newry and Belfast-- tricolours and Union Jacks in about equal measure, murals in Belfast (not all sectarian, but there was one showing Bobby Sands). I also saw a sign that said UDF [Ulster Defence Force, a loyalist paramilitary group]! I was also surprised by Protestants buildings which reminded me of those I saw in America, big Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist and other chapels, some called Gospel Halls, with the same sort of big signs saying things like: "Jesus Died for Our Sin". Unlike in England, they looked very much in use and for their original purpose. There were a lot of Republican anti-Brexit signs. Belfast is a real industrial or post-industrial city, lots of chimney and cranes, and redbrick buildings.

I saw a metal sculpture which had an aviation theme to it-- I only glimpsed it-- and subsequently learned it's a monument to Harry Ferguson, a pioneer of flying. When I reached Belfast, the city centre had a kind of globe-within-a-globe sculpture, which I see is called RISE and has been nicknamed "The Balls by the Falls". It's the kind of meaningless, non-controversial sculpture similar to the Millennium Spire.

We reached Belfast at 9:56.

I won't describe the conference itself. I didn't get into many conversations, not being talented at speaking to strangers. The young people all struck me as being dedicated Catholics, very upbeat and positive.

I gave my talk twice. The first time was from the back of the hall, the second was from the podium:

Then I had my talk. S------ called the three of us who were giving simultaneous talks to the mic, to describe what they were about. There was one by a priest about Mary, there was one by B------- about Catholic social action, and then there was me. I was very brief.

Then I went to the back of the hall and waited. This was the hardest part, quite nerve-wracking. Would anyone come? It looked like they wouldn't, at first, but in the end there was about eight or nine, I think. N----- stayed, and so did the nun who had just spoken.They were both very attentive and encouraging in their expressions, which was a huge help. Blank faces and lack of attention is so discouraging. Happily, people's interest seemed to pick up as I went on.

I was suddenly very nervous, much more nervous than I expected. I was expecting to be speaking from a podium, but I ended up speaking to people sitting right in front of me, like an informal conversation. This is far more nerve-wracking to me. I was trembling and my voice was shaking, although I rallied at times. 

Even though there were so many blank faces, I got a round of applause and some nice comments at the end. Sister Elaine told me she asked Our Lady which talk to attend and she told her to attend mine. I said: "I'm glad you did. I was frightened nobody would." She asked me who my favourite saint was, and I said it was Solanus Casey, and that I first came across him on a pamphlet at a Legion of Mary stand.

This is my description of the second time I gave it:
After that, I was giving my talk again. S----- asked me did I want to give it from the top of the hall this time, at the podium. I was very glad he suggested this. I wonder did he see my discomfort the first time around, or hear about it from someone else, or perhaps hear how bad it was. I went straight to the podium. R---- and K---- sat up front, much to my satisfaction. A friendly face is much to be desired when giving a talk. There were many more people this time around than last time around. I always overestimate numbers, but there might have been twenty or thirty. Some were inattentive, but most were listening.

I felt MUCH more confident this time. I felt extremely comfortable and in control. I found myself thinking, later, of this reflection, which I wrote on the feast of Aloysius Gonzaga last year:

Everything seems to come to me through way of the imagination. I find security, shelter, and seclusion exciting to think about-- but, at other times, I find various sorts of daunting experiences exciting. I love that line from Airport '79, when Jack Lemon and Christopher Lee are going to open a pressure door and the plane is underwater: "When that door opens, you're going to think the gates of hell have opened." Or when I was reading the Isaac Asimov book of jokes and he recalled challenging Harlan Elison (or someone else who was heckling him) from a podium: "Why don't you come up here, Harlan?". The idea of "up here" being such a distance from "down there" excited me, with my love for variation of space and time, and for atmosphere. But pondering it, I realize that it's often the things I hate-- embarrassment, pressure, self-consciousness, etc. etc.-- that makes it possible for a podium etc. to be a long long way from a seat mere feet away.

I couldn't stay long after the conference. I had to hurry to the station to get my bus back to Dublin, so I didn't see much more of the city. I noticed a whiny feminist sculpture (to forgotten female workers) outside the station, but that's pretty much all. I was reading A Very Short of Introduction to Russian Literature by Caitriona Kelly on the bus home. My trip and my reading on the trip, together, prompted these reflections in my diary:
Whenever I do anything new-- travel, or meet new people, or anything like that-- I'm suddenly thrown into contemplation of the rawness of life, the indeterminacy of life. And, instead of being exhilarated with the richness of its potential-- although this sometimes happens, like at my horror club meetings, or when I went on a visit to the art gallery and Christchurch and St. Patrick's Cathedral with my brother and my father in childhood-- more often I'm struck by the thinness of life, or its potential for thinness. Life in the raw is not splendid, but meagre-- that's how I feel. Life is rich not on its own resources, so much, but because of tradition, custom, the arts, folklore, narrative-- human things-- especially everything that is cumulative and contains memories.

I thought this, as well, visiting P------- in hospital-- and also, visiting M------- . How pleased I was to have anything to talk about, like the stories in the newspaper, or anything that would get them going and take our minds off the situation. The world, if it was shrunk to that hospital ward, was a small and empty place indeed.

I have two images in mind, two hypothetical vignettes, which have haunted me since then, or perhaps since M--------'s hospitalization. One is the image of somebody terminally ill, or just seriously ill, who has never really had any interests beyond keeping busy and the business of the day. He or she has nothing in that situation. Nothing to think about, nothing to be interested in, nothing except lying there and waiting to die or hoping to recover. While somebody who is interested in something larger than themselves remains a spectator of life's drama to the final moment, even if he is sidelined or on the way out.

On the notebook I took to make notes today, I wrote the word THICKNESS in large letters. Everything I saw and encountered today made me think of THICKNESS, of its desirability, and experience generally DOES make me think of this.

For instance-- the last time I went to the art gallery, before the last horror club meeting, I found myself realizing just how fertile, how full of possibilities, cultural nationalism is. It gave a flavour and an atmosphere and a horizon to all the art of that time. It was the opposite of a dead end, or stifling. What strikes me is that, when art is supposedly liberated from any tradition such as nationalism or Christianity or romanticism, it simply becomes banal and empty. Tradition gives life, growth, depth, resonance.

Connemara Girl by Augustus Nicholas Burke. Trite, chocolate box, clich├ęd, stale, etc. etc.

Whenever I travel, I'm desperate to find something distinctive, something special, in the places I go. I was so pleased, when I was on my sculpture trek [a journey I took around Dublin to find public sculptures), and I found a house which was completely decked out in the Dublin Gaelic football colours, with various banners and so forth hanging all over it. It gave the otherwise drab street some character, some identity, something to engage the mind. And that is what nationalism does, and religion too. When you find a monument that has some nationalistic or folkloric aspect, like the mesh bull I saw today, it evokes a whole spiritual territory beyond itself. Whereas that steel globe meant nothing beyond itself. 

How often postmodernist artists find themselves re-discovering religious and (to a lesser extent) folkloric tropes...there's something there....there's something to build upon, to create, to deepen...

The Russian literature book I was reading was also feeding these thoughts. I am so much a Slavophile and such a supporter of Slavophilia. Slavophilia is distinctive, special, promising, creative. Westernizers are trying to make Russia and the world less interesting, distinctive, and diverse. Insularism is more creative than cosmopolitanism.

But it's not just that. It's the idea of a national literature, even of literature itself. Books have always seemed to me like the bastion of life, of soul, of meaning. "Outer" life is thin and barren compared to the compressed, heightened "inner" life of books, history, traditions, ideas, and so forth. And that includes any kind of tradition. This is why I love that picture [a still from the movie School of Rock] of Jack Black standing in front of a blackboard showing all the different developments and genres in popular music-- it's something to get stuck into, something deep, something THICK. I crave THICKNESS of this sort.

And the book also wrote about monuments to Russian writers, and the veneration of Russian writers in Russia, especially in the Soviet era. I greatly admired this-- I like the piety and veneration, even if it was Marxists doing it. Indeed, the only thing that ever mitigates my hostility to political correctness is that it's a kind of reverence, of earnestness, of piety.

When it comes to Catholicism, I love the "thickness" of devotions, the liturgical calendar, Catholic history, Bible exegesis, saints stories, etc. etc.

Such were the thoughts that my trip to Belfast inspired in me. This is how my mind works. Seeing new things sends me scurrying to the shelter of books and traditions. God help me! And yet, I think I might be onto something here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Follow-Up to my Post Yesterday

Yesterday I wrote a post explaining why there is so little explicitly Catholic material on this blog, and why I concentrate on more general subjects, from a Catholic perspective. I explained that I was trying to avoid several tendencies I've noticed in other Catholic media-- not only blogs, but magazines, TV shows, YouTube vidoes, and so on. These included repetitiveness (repeating the same points over and over), getting caught up in Catholic in-fighting and faction-fighting, making vague assertions regarding "the spirit of Catholicism", and adding to the stress of modern life by constantly suggesting new ways readers can "deepen their faith lives", or avoid this or that pitfall.

I've been wondering how people took this post, and (since I always doubt myself) I've also been wondering whether I'm really on the right track here. But I've thought about it a lot, over many months and possibly years.

Today, I thought I would take a cruise through the Catholic Blog Directory and look at the latest post of various blogs there. I won't identify the blogs themselves.

The first was a blog about church music, so is really too specialist for my purpose.

The second was a blog post about fasting and the importance of fasting, along with a recommendation to fast during Lent. I imagine all of my readers agree on this already and wouldn't need to have it recommended to them.

The next was a video post, so I'll skip it.

The next was a post in which a homeschooling mother described two different doctor's opinions on how to treat her child, who suffers from cystic fibrosis (God bless her, and them). I've noticed a lot of homeschooling and child-rearing Catholic blogs. I don't have kids, so I couldn't write on that subject. And, although I'm often autobiographical, I avoid writing about family. (I reveal just as much about my life as I want to on this blog, and sometimes I've considered reining in my autobiographical bent as I'm actually very private, in some ways. But I find it hard not to be autobiographical.)

The next was a blog showing pictures of a Catholic family celebrating Christmas 2016, with snippets of text. As above.

The next blog post (from a priest's blog) was another video, showing Vespers and the blessing of icons. Personally, although I attend Mass as often as I reasonably can, and love ceremony and tradition and ritual, I don't much enjoy watching videos of it. I rather admire (and even envy) those who take an educated interest in liturgy, as long as it doesn't make them sour.

The next blog was written by someone who describes himself thus: "Traditional Catholic, Constitutional Conservative, American Patriot, in that Order." Its most recent blog post was a podcast regarding the mid-term elections in 2018. I try to avoid outright politics on this blog.

The next blog post addressed the question of children at Mass, and the controversy that surrounded a suggestion from a "pastor" in a Catholic Church in Maryland that small children might be better off attending a children's program while the parents go to Mass. This, predictably, sparked a huge controversy on social media. The blogger tries to take a nuanced approached, though she very firmly supports the view that children should be brought to Mass (as do I).

She admits a certain fatigue with this controversy, and I sympathise with her. Obviously some people out there disapprove of children at Mass, including this pastor. But I have never actually heard this view expressed directly, either in person or in anything I've read or watched. I've once heard someone at Mass complain about noisy children-- an elderly women, under her breath. Much more often, I've heard priests reassure parents with small children (when said small children are running around or making noise) that they are glad to see them there.

Is he also tired of this controversy?
But I hear an awful lot of responses to criticism of small children of Mass, especially on social media. I usually hit "hide post" pretty quickly. I can't help feeling that the response is out of proportion to the offence-- although I suppose that is how people react when they are rattled.

The next blog post (rather to my surprise) was from someone who very often interacts with me on social media, and who has been extraordinarily kind to me over many years (though we've never met in person). So I will pass over it, as it is rather personal in nature.

The next blog post is in French. My French is minimal, so I will pass over that, too.

The next blog is another "family blog", chronicling the experiences of a Catholic family. Interestingly, the blogger has some reflections on Catholic blogging herself: "I really do enjoy blogging but also have found that the style of blogs has changed over the years since I first started. The unique interesting family orientated blogs seem to be declining and the mega blog is more prevalent." I'm not sure what she means by the "mega blog".

The next blog is about G.K. Chesterton, and the latest blog post shows a meme in which a slug is wondering why there are so few poems about slugs. The blog post makes reference to Chesterton's oft-quoted line: "Poets have been mysteriously silent about cheese". This is more in my line.

The next blog is in Italian. I have no Italian whatsoever, so I will pass over it.

The next blog is also in Italian-- I think.

The next blog is about teaching children to pray, written by a parish worker who has years of experience at this-- a very worthy goal for a blog.

The next blog is about a children's rosary initiative-- it seems mostly a photo blog. Another fine initiative.

The next blog has a funny blog post as its latest-- a response to a challenge to write a "Doomsday Story" in four words. The blogger has responded to this by alluding to a series of song titles: "Let the dogs out" and "Didn't like Pina Coladas" are two examples. Nice.

The next blog has a short post, little more than a photo and a few lines, about the "Homeless Jesus" statute in Farm Street Jesuit Church, London, being blessed.

The next blog is a Carmelite blog and shows photographs of a visit to a church by temporarily vowed sisters and postulants.

The next blog is one written by Byzantine nuns in Ohio, and the latest post is a request for two elliptical machines, which is a kind of stair-climbing machine. (I didn't know that until now.)

Well, that is probably enough, and more than enough. To be honest, I've been rather surprised by what I found in my short trawl through the Catholic Blog Directory. I think I've been rather unfair in my perception that most Catholic blogs run through the same tired talking points, over and over. In fact, many are doing just what I'm trying to do-- to write from a Catholic perspective, rather than about Catholicism directly.

It seems, however, that few blogs go in for the kind of extended, reflective blog posts that I do. So perhaps my blog has a place, after all.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Why is There so Little Catholicism on This "Catholic" Blog?

It's a question that I think must sometimes occur to my readers, and I'll try to answer it as fairly as I can.

First off, I have a great awe of the Bible verse, "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1). I'm very careful what I present as Church teaching. Whenever I present anything as Catholic teaching, I like to be absolutely confident in its orthodoxy.

And I'm becoming ever more cautious in this regard. For instance, a few years ago I remember being very impressed by the homilies of a particular priest. I thought they were very scriptural and solid. Today, I often find myself wincing during his homilies, and thinking: "Well, that's not really true", or: "I wouldn't say that." Perhaps this comes from an over-critical or over-fastidious mind. After all, the Bible often speaks loosely. (Think how often Protestants have made hay of the verse, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", Romans 3:23, in arguing against the impeccability of Mary.)

Another reason I find myself backing away from making positive claims about Catholicism is because I'm trying to avoid a certain genre of Catholic writing. I might call it the "spirit of Catholicism" genre. I have perpetrated it in the past, and I'm now eager to avoid it.

We all know the lines from Belloc:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine...

Well, I'm increasingly sceptical of any "spirit of Catholicism"-- other than the Holy Spirit itself. The Catholic Church is universal. Trying to identify it with any culture or atmosphere is a mistake, in my view, and leads to distortions.

I think even G.K. Chesterton could be guilty of this. His eagerness to distance Catholicism from puritanism may have gone too far (although in some of his articles in the twenties and thirties, he himself says that the anti-puritan reaction is excessive). His name is now attached to a kind of rip-roaring, beery, party-hearty Catholicism."Break the conventions, keep the commandments" is a motto that some Chestertonians have distilled from the novel Manalive, although it's not an exact quotation, and it's not put in the imperative there. I personally think it's a stupid motto, and that conventions should generally be respected. Indeed, Chesterton suggests the same thing in his analogy of the fence.

Catholicism is, in my view, far too often identified with particular national cultures (usually Mediterranean), or with a particular era (the High Middle Ages), or with good taste and antiquarianism (Brideshead Revisited, Pugin enthusiasts), or with anti-bourgeois sentiment (Flannery O'Connor), or with left-wing activism (any number of leftist nuns and Jesuits), or with High Tory conservatism (Joseph De Maistre fans), or with some other sectional hobby-horse. And then there is the political divide, with some Catholics hailing Donald Trump as a second Constantine while others denounce him as an anti-Christ. In the same way, a figure like Nelson Mandela is presented as a kind of secular saint, despite having a terrible record on abortion.

What about the controversies in the Church? I can't find much justification for wading into these. I imagine the vast majority of my readers share my views on Amoris Laetitia or Fr. James Martin SJ, for instance. The arguments have been well-rehearsed elsewhere. What is gained by dragging them up yet again?

Another reason I so rarely write on explicitly Catholic topics is because I think it's hard to say anything really interesting or new to practicing, thinking Catholics-- at least, as far as the doctrinal level goes.

I would argue that the Catholic faith is pretty simple. Of course, nothing is simple in that everything is capable of almost endless analysis and debate. When dissident Catholics claim that the Church has complicated Jesus's simple message of love, the answer is obviously: "Well, it's not that simple." Nothing is that simple. And certainly there are nooks and crannies and hard cases which could be discussed exhaustively, and indeed exhaustingly.'s fairly simple.

I admit that most Catholic writing or programming bores me. Do I really need to watch another video explaining why pornography is wrong? Or why we need to actively participate at Mass? Or whether Catholics worship saints? Do I need to be told, for the millionth time, that worship is not a matter of emotions? I realize this might sound arrogant, and I don't mean it like that. It's just that nothing is more boring to me than somebody trying to convince me of something I already believe, or tell me something I already know. I imagine most readers of this blog are at the same stage in their faith.

Casting about for something new or original to say has its own dangers, which I am also trying to avoid. More on that in a bit.

Insofar as I enjoy Catholic media now, it's generally something like the podcast Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World, a podcast all about unsolved mysteries, which is presented from a Catholic point of view. And that is my same view of this blog. It's from a Catholic point of view, and that is how I justify calling it Catholic.

I do think that there is a place for such writing, as I wrote in this blog post. There, I am talking about a conservative rather than specifically Catholic point of view. As I say in the post, I think there is a great need for spaces where we can talk about life in general, and everything life has to offer, from a conservative perspective, as opposed to writing about conservatism. And I think the same is true in the case of Catholicism.

Let me return to the topic of "casting about for something original or new to say". This often takes the form of trying to help people grow in their Faith by recommending some extra devotion or discipline or way of participating in the Mass, or a course of study (perhaps Latin or patristics), or some such thing. Or perhaps it is a would-be helpful warning against pitfalls in the spiritual life.

In my view, one of the dangers here is that Catholic writers, bloggers, etc. might add to the stresses of life. I think this is a danger, not only when it comes to Catholicism, but when it comes to pretty much anything.

Reader, are you stressed by the tidal wave of advice that comes to you all day long, every day? It seems that we are bombarded with news stories and articles and radio interviews, and goodness knows what else, telling us that we're doing everything wrong. We're brushing our teeth wrong. We are having the wrong things for breakfast, and eating breakfast the wrong way. We shouldn't listen to the radio while having breakfast. And probably we shouldn't be sitting on a chair, but cross-legged on the floor. In fact, a quick Amazon search on the subject of one's morning routine came upon these book titles:

My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired

Morning Routine: 7 Morning Habits Of The Most Successful People To Take Control Of Your Life, Get More Energy, Productivity & Results In Your Day

The Miracle Morning: The 6 Habits That Will Transform Your Life Before 8AM

Morning Routine: The Secret to Master Your Life Before the World Wakes Up

Well, there many more, but you get the message.

I'm aware that the writers of these books would doubtless argue that they reduce stress in the long run. Well, maybe. But even reading the titles makes me feel stressed in the short run.

And it doesn't stop at breakfast. All day long, whatever you do, there are any number of articles and videos urging a "life hack" or "one simple tip" on you. More forbiddingly, there are those articles which tell us the five things we should never say to an introvert, or the three things that we should never say to a depressed person, or some other number of things that we should never say to some category of person, at the risk of causing irreparable psychological damage.


Then there are the "boot camps", the lunch-time sessions, the holiday reading lists, the hundred movies you have to see before you die, the hundred places you have to go before you die, the hundred books you have to read before you die, and all the other checklists you have to tick off before you gratefully collapse into your death-bed.

Admittedly, the goal of the spiritual life is to get to Heaven, and this is worth any amount of effort. But it's not just a matter of stress. I also think there's a real danger of undervaluing what people are doing already.

Let me take the example of priests. I often feel sorry for priests. They are the hapless recipients of constant and often conflicting advice. For instance, we want them to take a strong lead, but we also want them to eschew "clericalism".

As a matter of fact, I think most priests (I don't mean dissident priests) do a very good job. And yes, that includes the priest whose homilies I criticized earlier. Most homilies bore me, but so what? Every priest can't be St. Augustine.

Here's an example of the excessive criticism to which (in my view) priests are subjected. I watched a video by Fr. Mike Schmitz of the Ascension Presents channel, who was talking about a particular priest's first Mass. For this Mass, the priest had printed up cards which featured the words: "The Master has need of you"-- a reference to the ass which Jesus commandeered for his approach to Jerusalem. Fr. Mike Schmitz was praising this priest's humility, and incidentally complained that a priest's first Mass is too often an occasion for pride, for a focus upon the priest rather than Jesus.

And I couldn't help thinking: "Give priests a break!". Is it really so terrible if a first Mass is a time for congratulation and, God help us, praise? How much time will the priest have to spend deferring to married couples, and parents at baptisms and Communions and Confirmations, and grieving relatives? Does his entire life have to be a mortification? Is it so bad if he feels some innocent pride on this once-in-a-lifetime occasion?

In the same way, I worry that an avalanche of advice to Catholics on how to advance in the spiritual life might have unfortunate effects. We are often told that, if we are not advancing in the spiritual life, we are falling back. Perhaps that is true, and there are Scripture quotations to support it: "Be thou therefore perfect", "I must decrease, and he must increase", etc

But surely there is also a danger of demoralising the faithful by demanding more, more, more, and all of it NOW! (Of course, this will not demoralize the occasional church-goer-- it will demoralize the committed Catholic.)

Here is an example, to show my views here are not (I hope) simply self-serving. People have congratulated me on my knowledge of the Catholic faith. I think it's not arrogant to say that I would be fairly knowledgeable on Catholic teaching, theology, history, and so forth.

So I'm not thinking of myself when I suggest there may be too much emphasis, sometimes, on the need for a more catechized laity. Shaming Catholics for not being able to list the cardinal virtues or the Ten Commandments, or explain what they believe by Transubstantiation, or never having read the Confessions of St. Augustine, is a bit cheap.

Please let it be understood I'm by no means suggesting ordinary Catholics shouldn't be encouraged to increase their knowledge of the Faith. I'm really talking about the element of shame, of pressure, of stress. I think we should always be cognizant of the fact that people face so many other pressures, too. Just getting to Mass might be a huge effort. Just getting out of bed might be a huge effort (no joke).

I think this applies retrospectively, as well. Since the effective collapse of the Catholic Church in Ireland, all sorts of accusations have been made against the preceding generations of Irish Catholic prelates, priests and laypeople. I'm not talking about the abuse scandals here. I'm talking about the frequent claims that the Irish Catholic Church was triumphalist, complacent, anti-intellectual, puritanical, insular, etc. etc. etc. and that it contained the seeds of its own destruction.

I don't believe any of those accusation are true, and I think there is a great danger of demoralization here, as well.

What do you leave people if they have neither the present nor the past? Think of all those millions of Irish people, down the centuries, who sacrificed so much for their Faith, who attached their dearest hopes to it, who often made it the very centre of their lives. Think of all the decades during which Mass attendance among Irish Catholics was almost one hundred per cent, seminaries were overflowing, and the country sent missionaries all over the world. If we devalue all this, what is it but a tacit admission that no apparent success is ever anything but a sham? Would it not be better to emulate the Irish Catholicism of the past, to take it as an inspiration, even if we criticize it in this or that particular?

Incidentally, I think the same applies to the religiosity of America. Whenever I praise America as a more religious culture than Europe, I am told (often by Americans) that the Christianity of America is "a mile wide and an inch deep". Perhaps it is. Isn't it good that it's a mile wide, at least? Shouldn't we be grateful for that-- and careful to support it, as far as we are able?

All of these cases are examples of the same phenomenon-- of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

For my part, when it comes to writing, my goal is to inspire rather than shame, or demoralize, or cause stress-- whether I am writing on Catholic subjects, or on some other subject from a Catholic point of view.

I can imagine someone, at this point, pointing out to me that the Church has declined since Vatican II precisely because its pastors lowered the standards they demanded of the laity. Or I can imagine somebody quoting to me Pope Benedict's famous words: "You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness."

But to say this would be to misunderstand what I'm talking about here. I'm not suggesting we should lower standards, or cease to seek Christian perfection, or to urge one another towards it. Not at all. I'm simply suggesting we should be more concerned not to demoralise people, or to devalue what they're doing already, and not to beleaguer them incessantly with a multitude of simultaneous demands from a hundred different directions.

Imagine someone looking out an open window at a horizon that stretches away into the distance. She might look at it with delight, as the promise of an endless adventure. Or she might look at it with dread, as the prospect of an endless ordeal. My suggestion is that we should help her to see it as the former, rather than the latter. That is what I try to do, in my own poor way.