Thursday, February 28, 2013

Look after these Catholics for Me, Wouldya?

I liked this line from the report on the BBC website about Pope Benedict's last day as Pope (I refuse to write "Pontiff" for the sake of elegant variation):

At 19:00 GMT he will cease to be the Pope. His deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, will be in charge of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics until a new pope is elected next month.

It makes it sound like he's stashing them in a shed.

Thank you, God, for Pope Benedict, and may he have a serene retirement!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Did you read Dan Dare?

Dan Dare was a "pilot of the future" in the comic, The Eagle, which I used to read as a boy. His sidekick was Digby and his enemy was a green alien with an enormous head, who used to hover around on a metal saucer, called The Mekon.

I was reading about him on Wikipedia and was hugely amused by this account of a version of the character as depicted in an "edgy" eighties comic called Revolver. (Well, 1990, but the spirit is pure eighties.) I find it hilarious because it is such a perfect example of nineteen-eighties left-wing anti-everything nihilism, and the fact that comics at this time began to take themselves Very Very Seriously.

In 1990, a strip entitled Dare, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rian Hughes, was serialised in Revolver. It presented bleak and cynical characters and was a not-too-subtle satire of 1980s British politics. Spacefleet had been privatised, the Treens were subjected to racist abuse in urban ghettos, Digby was unemployed, Professor Peabody committed suicide, and Dare's mentor Sir Hubert Guest betrayed Dare to the Mekon and his quisling British Prime Minister, Gloria Munday (whose appearance and demeanour appear modelled on Margaret Thatcher.) Ultimately, Dare destroys London, the Mekon and himself through a smuggled nuclear weapon.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Please Pray...

...for Father Levi's mother and mother-in-law, and for Father Levi.

The Omnipresence of Pop Culture

The Oscars have come and gone (I'm glad Argo won Best Picture), which gives me an opportunity for some pompous pontificating on the subject of pop culture.

I think that pop culture is a subject that should provoke us to much lamentation and hand-wringing, even if there is nothing much we can do about it at the moment. Just remaining aware of the wrongness of a state of affairs is, in itself, desirable.

I write this despite being an avid cinema-goer, and I see no reason to apologize for that, or to equate it with pop culture. To me, pop culture is not really the enjoyment of entertainments like cinema or TV, or even the entertainments themselves. To me, pop culture is a particular mental and cultural environment that swarms with celebrities, famous ("iconic") moments from TV and cinema and music, internet "memes", famous snatches of dialogue, an awareness of what is "cool" and what isn't cool, and a preoccupation with fashions and trends and sensations.

I've noticed that, even though I go to the cinema more than almost anybody I know, I seem to know less about the actors and actresses than people who hardly ever go to the cinema. I always congratulate myself on this, which I accept is unbearably smug. I prize the fact that I don't know who the Kardashians are, although I lament the fact that I know I don't know.

I'll try to give a concrete example of what I mean. Not long ago, in the university where I work, there was a poster up for a "zombie weekend" which mimicked the famous Reservoir Dogs poster, a movie poster that depicts five or six men in sunglasses and suits walking with a certain swagger. However, in this version, they had been changed into zombies, with arms stretched out and disfigured faces.

What I found depressing was the combination of two pop cultural elements; the Reservoir Dogs poster and the presence of zombies (which are a contemporary pop-cultural favourite, as I'm sure you know). I found it depressing that the designer of the poster could assume that the viewer would recognize both elements, and I found it depressing that I did indeed recognize them. I also find it depressing that merely making a pop cultural allusion (or a "reference") is accepted as a substitute for wit or inspiration.

The problem with pop culture is that it is increasingly a way of life, a lingua franca, an element in which we live and move and have our being.

Some people know about literature and some people know about philosophy and some people know about politics, but the one thing that you can assume almost everybody knows about is pop culture. This is depressing and shameful.

If a lecturer or a teacher wants to connect with his students, he will almost certainly use a pop cultural reference. (For this purpose, I think professional sport counts as pop culture.) If, say, a writer of popular philosophy books wants to reach the masses, he will come up with some embarrassing title like "The Philosophy of The Matrix", or "The Simpsons and the Meaning of Life".

Even people who are steeped in some serious subject, like economics or ancient Greece or cosmology, are highly likely to devote their recreational moments to pop culture. In fact, I think it is the case that, the more specialised and professionalised and arcane knowledge becomes, the more people are inclined to take their mental holidays in the undemanding world of pop culture.

Why do I think this is such a sad state of affairs?

Because I think the general atmosphere of pop culture is unwholesome and rubbishy. This does not mean that pop culture itself is necessarily rubbishy. There are a lot of wonderful and artistic and life-affirming movies, television shows and popular songs.

But what rises to the top-- what lives in the collective mind-- tends to be the flotsam and jetsam. Not stories and melodies and themes, but images, and lines of dialogue, and posture and dress and hairstyle. I mean things like that stupid scene of Marilyn Monroe's skirt being blown up by the air from a grating. What is funny about that? What is clever? What is significant? Is it an image to put on a par with Prometheus bound or Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone or St. Francis surrounded by birds?

The elements of pop culture that seep into the collective mind tend to be picked for their appeal to our lower nature. They rely on the most juvenile attitude to sex, on swagger, on insouciance, on conspicuous consumption (throwing televisions out hotel rooms or driving Rolls Royes into swimming pools), on violence and menace, on pugnacity and pomposity, on arrogance and transgression. I challenge the reader to think of any "iconic" pop cultural image, or moment, or line of dialogue, or song lyric, that expresses humility or charity or reverence. There may be some, but they are surely very rare.

If we have this kind of junk floating around our mental and cultural bloodstream, how can it have anything but an unhealthy effect?

I think societies have always needed reference points and role models, heroes and heroines, proverbs and parables. They have always needed a pool of images and narratives and sayings to serve as a kind of shared imaginative vocabulary. In pre-literate societies, these were supplied by mythology and ballads and proverbs and other folklore. In literate societies (or literate circles), the folklore remained but was supplemented (and to a great extent superseded) by poetry, novels, paintings, and drama. In an increasingly post-literate society like our own, the folklore and high art remain, but are increasingly overladen with pop culture. (I first encountered a lot of Greek mythology through a Japanese space cartoon called Ulysses 2000.)

Of course, the values in folklore and mythology and high culture were not always so admirable themselves. Many ballads are shockingly grisly and gruesome. Victorian three-volume novels sometimes seem to reflect a world where money and status and marrying well are the be-all and end-all. But there is a callowness, a throw-away character, to pop culture that is (I think) not typical of folklore or literary culture, which at least required either time (in the case of folklore) or some imaginative effort (in the case of literary culture) to create and to enjoy.

I have deliberately avoided mentioning, until now, one alternative to pop culture; and that is religion. Even a cursory knowledge of human history tells us that it is only in very recent times that religion has been ghettoized to a corner of human life called "spirituality". I imagine that, for most of human history, religion simply was man's entertainment, festival, social life, culture, folklore, learning and imaginative world. (In Western Europe, of course, the Reformation put paid to a lot of that.) Even today, religious people are much more likely to have a supplement to pop culture, not just as an individual interest of a clique interest, but as a whole social and family atmosphere. Their mental world is more likely to abound in Biblical stories and verses and quotations, in snatches of hymns, and in stories from the lives of the saints. Even their language and patterns of thought are likely to contain echoes from liturgy and prayer.

This is how Peter Hitchens describes the change that has come over England in recent history (he was writing about a new television adaptation of Great Expectations):

Something very subtle has also happened to our voices and our faces. In 1946, we all had great grandfathers who had lived in villages and spoke the accent of the place. We all had great grandfathers who had been hungry, who had been cold, who hated and feared debt as a fiendish enemy, who had been chastised by parents or teachers, and who had experienced at first or second hand one form of cruelty or another in an England of harsh laws, mantraps and enclosure. And we all had great grandmothers who had been regular churchgoers, who knew the Bible, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and ‘Fox’s Book of Martyrs’. Their heads were full of songs we have forgotten.

Enemies of religion often challenge believers as to its benefits. Are religious believers morally superior to unbelievers? Of course, it's not as simple as that. The social benefits of religion cannot be narrowed down to a simple matter of ethics. I think a religious society (especially a Christian society) is better than a secular society for a hundred reasons; and one of the lesser reasons is that a religious culture provides a kind of buffer against pop culture. Surely we are better off humming "Abide with Me" than "Billie Jean", better off putting up a picture of Padre Pio than a poster of Jaws, better off quoting the words of St. Augustine than the lyrics of Michael Stipe?

Of course, post-Christian and pop-culture-saturated society is not going to swap celebrities for saints any time soon; but we can strive to make the change in our own lives. We can strive to avoid the entertainment industry gossip and the forwarded Youtube clips of embarrassing chat show interviews, and seek to nourish our imagination with sacred things instead.

And one day we may reach the blessed condition of that English judge, apocryphal or not, who supposedly demanded-- at the height of Beatlemania-- "Who are the Beatles?".

Ode to Trilobites

I like to think of trilobites.
I like to think of all that time
Before pollution, war, or crime.
I like to think of trilobites.

Though man has reached such giddy heights
And scaled the lofty and sublime
I like to think, from time to time,
About the harmless trilobites.

A million billion days and nights
They trudged through their primeval clime
Happy with plankton, sun and slime.
I like to think of trilobites.

A hundred million gigabytes
Are not enough to pass the time
For primates in their mental prime.
I like to think of trilobites.

Though what I know of trilobites
Could be engraved upon a dime
I daydream of the good old time
When Earth was full of trilobites.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Kingdom of Morpheus

I just caught myself falling asleep (literally) and once again found myself musing upon this habit, which in fact I indulge in every night. (I never have trouble sleeping. I once literally slept through a building being demolished, well within earshot.)

I can't help feeling that sleep is not only a biological but a mental, almost a logical necessity. Tonight, as so often when I wake up just as I was about to slide into slumber, I caught myself about to pass the portal of a dream. It was set in a dark cinema, and had something to do with staring down some glowing white shaft that opened onto another reality. Unearthly as it was, this shaft was regarded with some familiarity by myself and by the other people present in the dream.

Can you imagine a life that was all wakefulness? Can you imagine day passing into day without an intervening period of unconsciousness, dreams and irrationality? Can you conceive human existence without the punctuation of sleep? Can you imagine a mental stream formed entirely of reason, logic and judgement, without the nightly descent into irrationality and cognitive chaos?

I can't. Or, insofar as I can, it seems a deeply depressing and disturbing idea.

The nightly unclenching of the mind doesn't seem merely like a biological accident, but a necessary condition of mental life. It is as though the order, structure and sequence of waking thought is a sort of artificial construct that is imposed, temporarily and with great effort, upon an underlying flux of free-wheeling concepts, sensations and atmospheres, one to which we gratefully return every sixteen hours or so. I genuinely feel (and I don't mean this in a smart-alecky way) that the mental world of the sleeper is more primal, even in a sense more real, than the mental world of the waking man. Of course, the world of the waking man is more real in a very solid sense; if you shoot a man who is sleeping in bed, you will kill or injure him. But the world of the dreamer seems more real in a different sense; in the sense that it is closer to our intuitions and our undisciplined emotions our and deepest desires. Dreams are closer to the reality, not of the physical world, but of the mental world; and we never directly inhabit the physical world, as we do the mental world.

Sweet dreams.

When People Complain about the Church's Wealth...

...why do they always seem to concentrate their fire on churches and cathedrals and places of worship?

Surely one of the most important reasons the Church needs to have a revenue (apart from to perform its charitable works) is that it requires an educational and intellectual infrastructure. I have been reading profiles of Cardinals who are considered papabile (which, as you know, means "a possible candidate for Pope"), and I am struck by how much education and training and administrative experience is required of a Cardinal. And of course it would be.

The superficially romantic view of a Church that is formed entirely of mendicant monks and worker-priests would be, in fact, an intellectually and culturally and (ultimately) a spiritually impoverished institution. Christ's kingdom is not of this world, and yet the Church must be (in a certain sense) a world of its own. It needs a body as well as a soul. It needs brick-and-mortar spaces where it can pursue theological research, train priests, formulate social and cultural policies, and so forth. Otherwise it would have no independence of thought-- it might cleave to its dogmas, but would it be able to defend them?

The pilgrim Church may never have "where to lay its head" in this world, but it needs at least somewhere to stand if it is going to move the world.

It may be an obvious point, but it hadn't occurred to me until this evening.

Ten Thousand Difficulties (Minus Nine Hundred and Ninety Seven)

Some time ago, I contributed this account of how I came to accept the Catholic faith on the website Why I'm Catholic. I felt rather bashful putting myself forward like that (especially since most of the people whose stories feature on the site are people of some repute), so I was pleased that a few sites linked to it and an Australian magazine reprinted it.

The webmaster of the site intended to have a follow-up section to each of the accounts, called "Struggles", which would list the difficulties and stumbling-blocks each contributor faced in accepting the truth of the Catholic creed.

It was about a year ago that he asked for this supplementary piece, and nothing had appeared, so I wrote to him asking if that plan had been abandoned and whether I could use my own contribution on my blog. He wrote back to say that the plan had not been abandoned, but rather it had been delayed, and that I was welcome to use my piece on the blog.

"Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt", said Newman. The Catholic faith fully satisfies me-- intellectually, aesthetically, existentially, historically, and in a hundred other ways. But what view of the world, no matter how whole-heartedly assented to, leaves no room at all for reservations? I hope the reader will understand that this is an exercise in intellectual honesty, and that I put it forward in the hope that a profession of faith which admits such hesitations will ultimately be more useful and convincing than mere cheer-leading.

So here it is.


I’ve read many Catholic conversion stories that contain some passage along these lines: Never in a thousand years would I have imagined entering the pews of a Catholic church. Everything about Catholicism was nails down a blackboard to me. Some religions seemed fairly inoffensive, even laudable— as delusions go. But Catholicism stood for all that was reactionary, outmoded, anti-progressive. All that kneeling and bell-ringing seemed kitsch and just plain embarrassing to me.

Me? I never felt like that. In fact, even as an atheist/agnostic, I liked everything about the Catholic Church, both its doctrine and its discipline And I especially liked the parts that the modern world world found difficult, or that non-Catholics had struggled with through history—- the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the authority of the Pope, the uncompromising sexual teaching, prayer to saints, and so forth.

No, my own problem was with something more fundamental—- belief in God Himself, especially in a theistic God that revealed Himself to mankind, answered prayers, and performed miracles.

One thing that held me back from believing in the Christian God was the sheer size of our universe.

This is an interesting topic, since the vastness of the universe seems to provoke quite opposite reactions when it comes to religious belief. Some people look at the starry sky, or at an image from the Hubble telescope, and are moved to religious awe by the sight. In fact, many renowned astronomers have been Jesuits—so many that some 35 of the moon crater’s are named after them. Evidently, their faith was not challenged by the mind-boggling proportions of the heavens, and our planet’s puny size in comparison.

But the size of the universe is often put forward as an argument against theism, and I am sure I am not the only Christian believer to be challenged by it. And there is no shirking that challenge. Our faith tells us that God became incarnate here on Earth. On that account, this unimaginably tiny planet is indeed special. Christ died for us once for all, as St. Peter tells us. When I was younger I imagined the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection happening on planet after planet throughout the universe; now I understand that the events of the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday were unique.

Of course, this reaction to the size of the universe is an emotional reaction. There is no logically compelling reason why one tiny planet in an obscure star system should not play host to a drama of such cosmic proportions. But, since emotion and intuition (along with reason) play such a large part in faith, I felt it was something of a double-standard not to admit their relevance here.

Many of the arguments Christians have used to counter this reaction seem poor to me.”It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos”, wrote GK Chesterton; “for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” But the ratio of man to tree cannot even be compared to the ratio of our Earth to the cosmos. Nothing can; it is unique. Even granting that God likes to do things on a grand scale, this largesse of galaxy clusters seemed excessive. “I should be suffocated in a universe I could see to the end of”, wrote CS Lewis. So would I. But hundreds of billions of galaxies? The night sky could have been majestic with a hundred galaxies. Or twenty.

Eventually, it was a scientific argument that pacified me. I read a lot of books about science and faith prior to my conversion, so I can’t remember in exactly which one I encountered this argument. (In any case, it can be found on the website Quodlibeta, in a three-part post entitled Size Doesn’t Matter.) As far as I could comprehend it, the thesis is that the cosmos had to be as big as it is, and as ancient as it is (the two things are related since it has been expanding since the Big Bang) to give rise to life. Astounding as it seems, all those billions of galaxies were needed for us to be here at all.

Does this make the “vast cosmos” argument against God an argument for God? Writing this, it occurs to me that it does. And yet the size of the universe still intimidates me, although less than it used to.

Another point that has since occured to me is that it is only our bodies that are dwarfed by the cosmos. Our thoughts, being without size or physical dimension, are no less grand than the Crab Nebula or the Milky Way. My concept of the physical universe does indeed “take in” all those billions of galaxies, even though I cannot imagine their size (which is something quite different). Man is made in the image of his Maker, and it is not just poetry to say that there is something in humanity that transcends mere physical size. It is the sober, literal truth.

Another difficulty I had in embracing Christianity, and especially Catholicism, was its stubborn insistence on God’s intervention in his creation. This consideration actually worked both ways. I wouldn’t have given Catholicism the time of day if it was not such a thoroughly supernatural religion. I found miracles, petitionary prayer and the Virgin Birth difficult to swallow. But a watered-down liberal Christianity, in which Jesus was a Great Moral Teacher and God was an absentee landlord, seemed beneath contempt to me. I was impressed by the Catholic Church’s confidence in declaring certain modern-day Marian apparitions and miracles worthy of belief, but at the same time, I wondered why I should accept them.

What I really wanted to know was this—- why was God so bashful? Why did miracles never seem to happen when the TV cameras were rolling, or under laboratory conditions? Why couldn’t I see somebody rising from the dead, or levitating, on Youtube? How could theists answer skeptics such as James Randi, who has for a long time offered a prize of a million dollars to anyone who can give hard proof of the paranormal? How come every apparent proof of the supernatural, from spiritualism to ESP, ultimately turned out to be a fraud?

“If they hear not Moses and the prophets”, says Abraham, in our Saviour’s story of Lazarus and Dives, “neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead”. That seemed all too convenient to me. Was it really true that, if the stars in heaven were to form themselves into the words Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour, all the Skeptics’ Societies would still stick to their guns? Didn’t spiritualists and fraudulent mediums con their victims by insisting the spirits needed a friendly atmosphere— which usually meant gullible people and darkened rooms?

But think about it. What if the stars did form themselves into the words Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour? Maybe all the skeptics and atheists would flock to confession before their next meal. But would that be faith? Would it not be a kind of coercion on God’s part, and mere enlightened self-interest on the skeptic’s part? Christ isn’t going to force anyone to believe in him. We have to be free to reject him, because we have to be free to accept him. God leaves the door open to both.

I am aware that many people-- sincere seekers as well as belligerent atheists-- will find this answer unsatisfactory. “Blind faith again”, they will say, either with a satisfied chuckle or a disappointed groan. But it is not a question of blind faith. God will not coerce our intellects. Neither will He perform under laboratory conditions. He won’t answer prayers like a slot machine dispensing chocolate. But He has indeed given us good reason to believe in His miracles, even if He hasn’t put them beyond dispute.

It is very difficult—- I find it impossible—to make sense of Christian history without accepting its central miracle, the Resurrection. What on earth impelled Christ’s apostles, their early converts, and most of the early Popes to face persecution and grisly martyrdom, without an unshakeable conviction that Christ had indeed risen from the dead? What were they getting out of it? Why would they persist with the imposture, knowing it was an imposture? “If we have only hoped in Christ in this life”, said St. Paul, “we are of all men most pitiable.” No kidding.

One could safely claim that all Christian miracles derive their validation from that one miracle. But many of the miracles and visions that the Church declares worthy of belief stand on their own merits. The miracle of the sun at Fatima, the image on the Turin Shroud (though we should note that the Vatican has not made any authoritative declaration on this one), the stigmata of Padre Pio, the various Eucharistic miracles accepted by the Church—- none of these can simply be explained away. We are left, as always, with the freedom to reject or accept them.
But there is even more to the case for miracles than that.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that, when he first heard that photographs had been taken of fairies (eventually, of course, these were shown to be a fraud), he felt a pang of anxiety; he did not want fairies to become just another documented fact. I like the idea of miracles, and I’m happy to live in a world where the word “miracle” means something. And what would it mean if miracles were simply another natural occurence? Where would we derive the same thrill, the same sense of awe and mystery, if walking on water and speaking in tongues were about as common as, say, people who lived past a hundred and ten years? Why do we naturally reach for the word “magical” to describe something wondrous, even if it’s a perfectly ordinary thing like a sunrise or a poem?

When you think about it, the very concept of “something outside the order of nature” is an odd one. There are events we can imagine, events that are reputed to occur, events that have been convincingly attested to, but that are not considered possible—- or at least, they are considered never to be possible by the atheist, and possible only by divine intervention by the religious believer. I can easily imagine a world where nothing that was logically impossible was physically impossible, where burning bushes and water turned to wine elicited no more than a shrug or a raised eyebrow—a world with no concept of the uncanny, or the supernatural. But I would not like to live in such a world. I am glad that God made room for the marvellous.

Lastly on the subject of miracles, I find something miraculous in the fact that I can conceive of a miracle. My mind can hypothesize something that has never appeared in my experience. Where did this idea come from? How did my mind learn to improvize like this? In a deterministic universe, a universe of unalterable physical law, wouldn’t our thoughts be as “preset” as the commands of a computer program?

A third difficulty I encountered in my spiritual search was the indifference or hostility of so many scientists to religion. Here I cannot speak with any kind of authority. I know nothing about science and I care less—- the subject utterly bores me. But, being born in the late twentieth century, naturally I looked towards scientists as the sooth-sayers of our society. I absorbed the idea that everything boils down to science, that scientific enquiry is the privileged and definitive route to knowledge, and that every passing year brings science closer to a Complete Explanation of Absolutely Everything, which would be written in equations and incomprehensible notations.

And scientists, I noticed, didn’t care much for God. More than ninety per cent of fellows of the Royal Society are atheists, I read (I don’t vouch for the truth of this). And many scientists and scientifically-minded writers, like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, were ardent unbelievers. The world was moving more and more towards science, and science was moving further and further away from God.

It was true that there were some famous scientists who were Christians, such as Francis Collins the geneticist, or John Polkinghorne, the physicist-turned-vicar. But the same few names were always trotted out to show that great scientists could be religious believers—- it was plain that they were very much the exception, the minority. And what if it was a shrinking minority? What if all of tomorrow’s scientists rejected God? What then?

I have to admit that this still bothers me. I wish there were more scientists who were Christians, or simply religious believers. I would like the proportion to grow. Whenever I read (as I sometimes do) that the younger generation of scientists are more open to religious belief, it cheers me. When I read a Catholic scientist like Stephen M. Barr presenting scientific support for God’s existence, it cheers me.

But the subject doesn’t seem nearly as important to me as it used to. The more that I thought and read on the subject, the less it seemed to me that scientists had any kind of privileged position when it came to Ultimate Truth.

After all, there were so many things that I knew existed, but that had no scientifically demonstrable reality. The past, for instance—- it certainly existed, but where was it? Then there was my self, my personal identity. I know that the person I am now is the same person as the baby that my mother gave birth to, even if most of my body’s cells have been completely replaced in the meantime. But where is the scientific basis for this statement?

By the same token, I knew that I possessed consciousness, that I experienced my own thoughts, and that my they were not some purely physical process. The memory of a childhood Christmas was different from the firing of neurons in my brain, even if one was caused by the other.

I knew that W.B. Yeats was a better poet than Dr. Seuss (no disrespect to Dr. Seuss), and that this wasn’t just a matter of taste, but how could that be proven scientifically? I knew that it was wrong to throw babies over cliffs, and that (again) this wasn’t just a personal preference, but how could that be demonstrated in a laboratory?

And even if science could reach its Complete Explanation of Absolutely Everything, how could it explain why things were like that in the first place? How could it explain itself? There seemed something rather odd and arbitrary about this universe of measurable laws and chemical elements. I could easily imagine it as being different than it was. What was the point of scientific explanation at all if you eventually hit the wall of “it’s like that, and that’s the way it is?”

Besides, it slowly dawned on me that science wasn’t really all that close to the Complete Explanation, after all. Why, They couldn’t even explain chemistry and biology in terms of pure physics yet. There seemed considerable doubt over whether They ever could.

In other words, philosophy had liberated me from scientific reductionism. As Francis Bacon put it, while he was inventing the scientific method, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Breakfast Conversation with my Father This Morning

My father: "You never got your hair cut after all?"

Me: "I looked in but there were people waiting. I was only going to go in if there was nobody there."

My father: "There are two hairdressers side by side, you could have gone to the other."

Me: "The Pink Scissors?"

My father: "It's not just for women, it's for men, too."

Me: "There's a picture of a woman in the window!"

My father: "I got my hair cut there." Pause. "Mind you, I didn't know it was called the Pink Scissors. It must have been called something else then. If I had known it was called The Pink Scissors, I would have had second thoughts."

A Horror Story

A few years ago, I wrote a collection of short-short horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares. The idea was that all of the stories had to be as original as I could make them, they had to have different tones and styles, and they had to be different from each other, not variations on a theme.

Well, there were no takers for my collection, and the few I sent out individually into the world came back with their knees scuffed and their spectacles broken. Looking over them since, I realise my own sense of accomplishment when I finished the collection was misplaced. (How I remember breaking open the bottle of Bailey's I had bought in anticipation of writing the last line!) But some of them are not too bad, I think.

Here is one of the less bad ones:

A Man About the House

The mobile phone on the coffe table rang. Wayne lifted it.

“Hi”, he said, a little blearily.

“How are things going?”, asked June. “Any calls, any letters?”

“No”, said Wayne. “Still nothing”.

“Oh…never mind, sweetie. These are tough times. What are you doing?”

“Watching TV”, said Wayne. “Some documentary about footballers’ wives.”

“Lord help us”, said June. “Hey, guess what happened today?”

And she went on for ten or fifteen minutes, telling him about a girl in the office who’d got engaged the night before. Wayne made interested noises until she finally hung up.

She didn’t love him anymore. But really, how could he expect her to?

He was forty-one. Forty-one wasn’t the age to lose your job. Forty-one wasn’t the age for starting again. And if women hated one thing more than anything else, it was failure.

Maybe it was all for the best, though. She was losing her looks fast. Just last night he’d noticed wrinkles at the corner of her mouth that he’d never seen before. How could he have guessed she’d go downhill so fast?

He switched over from the footballer’s wives documentary to a drama set in inter-war Oxford. A drunken undergraduate had interrupted an avant-garde poetry reading. A few scenes later, he was in bed with another slim, white-skinned young man. Wayne flicked the remote control again. A trio of New Yorkers, two men and a women, were having an involved argument about a dinner party. Behind them, through the window, the night skyline glittered.

There was a tapping on the window.

Wayne started, stared at the drawn curtains, stood up, tensed, and pulled the curtains apart.

A man was standing with his face almost pressed to the glass. He was a tall man, well over six foot, with a shaved head and a broken nose. He wore a football jersey and a golden ear-ring. He was grinning at Wayne in the most diabolical manner imaginable.

Wayne jumped up and stepped three paces backwards, still looking at the man. At the same time, the thug began to retreat. He pointed at Wayne as he did so, not breaking his stare even as he clambered backwards over the garden wall. Then he raised one clenched fist, turned around, and swaggered away.

Wayne stood where he was, staring after the man. Should he call the police?

No, he quickly realised, that was naive. The police weren’t interested. And even if they were interested, they were powerless. And so was he. It was every man for himself these days.

He went upstairs and took a bath. The walls and ceiling of the bathroom seemed to closing in on him. It was a ridiculously tiny bathroom, really. But then, this was a ridiculously small house. To think he had been so proud when they’d bought it! How could he have been so green?

He was sitting in the bath when he heard the gunshot. It was perhaps no more than two or three hundred yards away. He froze in the hot water.

Five minutes later, he got out of the water, towelled himself dry, got back into his pyjamas, and went downstairs to see if there had been anything about a shooting in the neighbourhood. He switched on the lunch-time news, but there was nothing. Not about a shooting, anyway. There was something about a mysterious new illness in Brazil, and a fifteen-year-old who had signed a three album deal with Polydor, and a golf course that had been bought for two hundred million by an airline tycoon.

There still hadn’t been anything about it when June got back. Wayne was watching a drama about drug addiction by then.

“You can keep the house”, he said as she was taking her coat off.

She froze, staring at him. She really does look clapped-out, he thought. “What are you talking about?”, she asked, with a confused smile.

“Let’s not play games”, he said. “You can keep the house. I’m going. I don’t have anywhere to go, but I’m going. I’m sick of being afraid here. I’m sick of feeling like a nothing. I’m sick of you despising me. I’m sick—“

June screamed. She was pointing at the television screen. Wayne turned.

A face was staring out from it. It was the face that had looked at him through the window, but worse; almost monstrous, now, twisted with hate and fury. Behind it, the screen was a gleaming white.

June dropped to her hands and knees and lunged towards the TV plug. The face on the screen howled in protest, and a hand came into view. For one moment, Wayne thought the hand had come through the screen. But then the display went dark and June, panting, was brandishing the plug in her hand and staring at her husband.

There was a long, long silence. It was the first silence in the house for a long, long time.

She looks so beautiful, thought Wayne, taken aback at this realisation. The dark eyes that stared into his own were full of love and anxiety.

Outside, in the next garden, some girls were chanting a skipping chant. How much he used to enjoy listening to them! But it seemed like forever since he’d so much as heard them. It seemed so long, too, since he had noticed the birdsong that suddenly, in this hushed moment, seemed so loud and so unmissable; like a great hosanna that had been perpetually offered up since the dawn of the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Prayer Request

I am having rather a difficult time right now. I would be grateful to anyone who might remember me in their prayers.

Incidentally, I do pray for readers of this blog, and give thanks for them-- collectively and (in the case of those who have commented) by name or pseudonym.

Thank you.

Monday, February 18, 2013

How Important is Secular Knowledge?

This is a question I am grappling with more and more. Should Christians strive to be well-rounded people with a broad and deep knowledge of life? Or should we interpret Christ's words that "one thing alone is needful" to mean that we should concentrate on Heavenly things to the exclusion of worldly things?

The first letter of John tells us "Love not the world, nor the things that are in this world. If any man love the world, the charity of his Father is not in him". How are we to interpret this?

Does Christ's announcement that "I am come that they may have life, and have it to the full" mean that we should live full, active, varied lives? Or is the fullness of life to be found on the narrow path of salvation, rather than in any worldly plenitude?

St. Paul wrote, "Because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I count everything else as loss. For him I have accepted the loss of all other things, and look on them all as filth if only I can gain Christ". Is that a pattern for Christians?

Should we watch television? Visit the cinema? Read novels? Paint? Play chess? Support sports teams? Collect postcards? Should we engage in the million other hobbies and pursuits that may interest us and (as we believe) enrich our lives?

And if we should do these things, should we do them for their own sake, or should we do them as a means to some other end-- for instance, going to the movies as a part of courtship or friendship or family life? Or should we simply do them as a form of recreation, not for their own sake, but to refresh ourselves and so better equip ourselves for our Christian duties?

If we study history and literature and folklore and philosophy, may we do this for its own sake, or are all these things to be studied from a Christian perspective-- to make us better apologists, better defenders of the Faith, and to help us better trace the workings of the Holy Spirit?

I find this question especially compelling, because (like Robert Frost's traveller) both of the paths that open from this fork in the road seem attractive to me.

What Christian-- indeed, what agnostic who is not devoid of religious yearnings-- has not felt the desire to renounce his interest in the world and to spend all his or her attention (insofar as duty allowed) upon sacred subjects? Who cannot sympathize with the words of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque: "I desire but this one grace, and long to be consumed like a burning candle in His holy Presence every moment of the life that remains to me"? Whose heart does not jump at the words of St. John the Baptist: "He must increase, but I must decrease?"

Who has never knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in some quiet church and felt a surge of longing to be there always-- physically as far as possible, and when not physically, mentally? Who has not felt that the stillness of that holy place makes a mockery of the whirling, giddy, distracted world outside? Does not the world outside seem unreal and phantasmal, at such a moment?

Who has never felt that spiritual reading is the only sort of reading that is really worthwhile-- that all the libraries of fiction, philosophy, history, criticism, memoirs, and so forth, are merely shadows and opinion, while Scripture, approved spiritual classics, sound theology, and other dependable religious works, are "solid food"? How can we justify time spent reading novels when many lifetimes would not suffice to master the Bible, the Fathers, the lives of the saints, the history of the Church, and so on?

I myself often feel this desire to abandon all worldly reading and learning and focus my mind entirely on religion. Of course, I am well aware how much of it is merely imagination and whim. I imagine, at moments of religious excitement, that I could wish nothing more than to devote all my mental energies to the worship and knowledge of God, to the study of Godly things. But I am well aware of my own inconstancy, my own fickleness, of how quickly and easily I would be drawn to worldly matters. And yet, if I was capable of such a concentration on spiritual things, would it be desirable? It is the ideal for Christians?

And then there is the other road that forks from this crossroad-- not the one that leads to the lonely church, but the one that leads to the lights of the city and habitations of men and all of the boundless, numberless activities of mankind. (To be sure, there are churches and cathedrals there, too.)

I have always loved the giddy diversity of human life. One of my favourite poems of all time is "Snow" by Louis MacNeice, with its celebrated lines:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

I even had a t-shirt printed with those lines on it, not so long ago. (Unfortunately, it didn't stand up to many washes.)

My love of the world's plurality is so intense that even looking at a Trivial Pursuit board, or flicking through the pages of an enyclopedia, or taking a book at random from a shelf and opening a random page, fills me with an intense and awe-filled delight.

And this delight is (and always has been, on looking back, though I didn't always realize it) a religious delight. Life, when I look at it with an appreciation for its tropical variety, seems so obviously the handiwork of a benevolent and insanely generous Creator. And taking delight in His creation itself seems like an act of worship, when done with reverence.

So I have no answer to my question. In fact, I would be very grateful for any guidance and advice and answers that others might have. I am left standing at the fork in the road.

Why are the Irish so Petty and Critical?

This was a question that brought a visitor to my blog today.

Of course, there are several answers, all of which are common knowledge:

1) The constant rain
2) Eight hundred years of British occupation
3) Fianna Fáil
4) The phlegmatic Celtic temperament
5) An oppressive, misogynistic, reactionary (etc. etc. etc. etc.) Catholic Church
6) Excessive expectations in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Thank you for your visit. Please come again.

Spam Cracks Me Up

Two subject lines in my spam folder today that made me smile:

"Let's go to drink coffee or tea, as you prefer, honey".



"You shouldn't swallow your pride and become a notorious impotent."

I have never heard "impotent" used as a noun before. Creative.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Belief in the Supernatural

Perhaps the most significant division, when it comes to belief, is not that between religious believers and atheists, but those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. I use "supernatural" in the colloquial sense. Somebody who believes in a deistic God but who does not believe that God intervenes in the universe that He (She? It?) has created is effectively an atheist and an anti-supernaturalist. At least, I do not know of any life-changing and commitment-demanding religion that is based upon a hands-off Deity, one that simply sits in the Seventh Heaven and smiles down at us beatifically. It seems to be a requirement of religious belief that God takes an active interest in our affairs, and makes demands upon us.

Liberal, demythologized religion, like liberal Protestantism and liberal Judaism, seems to ossify as soon as it is created.

This belief in the supernatural is the real leap of faith-- I don't mean that it is unreasonable, but that it utterly changes the mental universe you live in.

I mentioned the dinner party I attended on Saturday, where the last half hour or so was devoted to an impassioned debate about Catholicism. At one point, two of the ladies were discussing Lourdes, and I asked one of them whether she believed the stories of the Lourdes visionaries. "No", she said. She was not aggressive about it but it was obvious that she didn't even begin to think that it was in any way possible.

This is how Matthew Parris, the journalist and former politician, describes his own utter lack of belief in a miraculous cure performed by the late John Paul II:

"But how can you be sure?" Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope's name down. He didn't. Mere language does no justice to my certainty about whether God might be waiting for the return to their Biblical lands of the Israelites, before arranging the Second Coming. He isn't.

I understand this feeling. Sometimes, when I am praying in front of the tabernacle in a deserted Church or chapel, I imagine how I would react if Christ or the Blessed Mother or an angel were to appear to me at that moment. I find it impossible to imagine. If somebody I knew and trusted told me such a thing had happened to them, I would find it extremely difficult to believe them.

I have never had anything obviously or (or even not-so-obviously) supernatural happen to me. I am, in fact, temperamentally a sceptic. I know a woman who is very decidedly an atheist but who refuses to go into a certain room for fear of ghosts. She doesn't believe in ghosts, but she's still jittery. Well, I do believe in the supernatural, and I would sleep in a haunted house with no fear whatsoever, other than the fear of a living intruder.

I know that some unbelievers must hear our talk of Red Sea crossings, miraculous healings, visions, levitations, answered prayers and angelic visitations and assume, charitably, that it must all be a manner of speaking, or a metaphor-- that we might believe in God and (maybe) in the miracles and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but that Old Testament stories and the feats of the apostles and saints are not to be taken at face value. Nobody is going to challenge you in a church or at a theology seminar for talking like that. You can talk about Adam and Eve while being non-committal about whether the tale is a fable intended to explain original sin or whether it actually happened.

When I was making my way to belief in Christianity, this matter of the supernatural was a big stumbling-block. I could find no evidence that anything supernatural had ever happened. There had been mounds upon mounds of scientific research into the paranormal, and none of it had turned up so much as a blob of ectoplasm. The only evidence of the supernatural that I could find were within the Christian tradition; the Turin Shroud, the miracle at Fatima, the Lourdes visionaries, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the blood of St. Januarius. Of course, all these are open to question by sceptics, but they were not easily dismissed.

But miracles and other supernatural occurences weren't just a kind of necessary embarrassment that I learned to live with. A Christianity without them wouldn't have had much appeal to me. Sceptic as I was, I longed for the supernatural and the miraculous as a hart pants for the streams. I had always loved horror stories and ghost stories and fantasy stories. I could sympathize with Samuel Johnson's view on ghosts: "All argument is against it; but all belief is for it."

Why were stories of the uncanny, the supernatural and the ghostly such ubiquitous features of human life? It wasn't as though they were merely a preoccupation of eccentrics, or a minor theme in human culture. They seemed to be absolutely central to every national folklore since the beginning of time. Even the most cursory knowledge of Irish folklore would tell you that its most prominent ingredients are supernatural; banshees, fairies, leprechauns, witches. The same seems to be true of other national folklores. The folk mind seems to turn towards the supernatural like a compass's needle turning to magnetic North. Even the modern day urban legend thrives upon stories of the supernatural, with tales of vanishing hitchhikers and of prophetic dreams saving people from plane crashes and other disasters.

Why is this? Why was realism a late-comer to human storytelling? Why do we seem to be made for the supernatural? I found it all extremely suggestive. I could easily imagine things being otherwise. I could imagine a world where the idea of the supernatural hardly existed.

How could spooky and supernatural stories have survived for so many centuries if they simply didn't happen? Mind you, I'm not arguing that this proves that they did happen. It just seems extraordinary that they should be so resilient.

From a rationalist point of view, religion and the social respectability of religion is surely a bizarre thing. Children are sent to religious schools where they are taught that various physically impossible events ocurred and continue to occur. Rabbis and priests and other religious figures are given a place at the table at highbrow discussions-- say, at an academic debate or a current affairs panel show-- even though they openly avow (from an atheist point of view) utterly crazy beliefs, beliefs at variance with all experience and everyday expectation.

I myself become frustrated with religious apologists who seem to concentrate more or less exclusively on rather abstract questions when defending theistic belief. For instance, it is fairly common for Catholic apologists to exalt Catholicism's commitment to absolute, timeless Truth as against postmodern relatavism or as against an instrumentalist theory of knowledge, and to put this forward as a reason for belief. But I imagine many agnostics are less worried about such deep questions of metaphysics or epistemology than they are about talking donkeys, patriarchs with superhuman longevity, and the supernatural grace conferred by baptism. Now, I'm not denying the logic that, once you establish the legitimacy of theistic belief, the miraculous is no longer a priori objectionable. I just never want to feel that my side is skirting the difficulties.

I often wonder what the current state of play is with regard to belief in the supernatural. Are most people supernaturalists? It's true that astrologers and psychics continue to do a roaring trade, but do they only appeal to a minority? Have most people made their minds up about the possibility of the supernatural, or are they unsure? Do they think about it much? How could they not?

I guess that, being a dyed-in-the-wool sceptic with a firm belief in this supernatural, I am a part of the strangeness myself.

How can Conservatives Win the Culture War?

Answer: they probably can't, and they shouldn't even try. Culture wars are immense distractions. Important issues come to be regarded, not as issues in their own rights, but as battlefields in a larger conflict.

In the case of Catholics in Ireland, John Waters has argued very powerfully that getting locked into a siege mentality will almost inevitably lead to defeat after defeat:

I have often observed that the pattern of public discourse in what we call ‘modern’ society is that, once a controversial issue – one, I mean, running in the face of ‘traditional’ thinking – has been launched into the public discourse, the defeat of what is called ‘traditionalism’ is all but inevitable.

This applies to virtually all the fundamental questions about the public standing and influence of Christian thinking across a wide range of issues, from gay marriage and adoption to the place to be accorded to faith in education. On all of these questions, the debate is constructed to ensure that, to borrow a famous phrase, the ‘modernisers’ need to be lucky just once, while ‘traditionalists’ need to be lucky all the time. The persistent reiteration of the issue in question, and the gradual wearing-down of opposition, ensures that the ‘debate’ can ultimately have but one outcome. And this sense of inevitability serves to intensify the opposition of ‘traditionalists’, but in a manner suggesting that they are, like Canute, merely admonishing the tide of what is termed human progress.

Similarly, Peter Hitchens in this article argues that social conservative should not get lured into the debate about gay marriage, which he sees as a distraction from the much more important matter of saving traditional marriage itself. (I sympathise with his argument, but I think that the redefinition of marriage has to have a knock-on effect on our attitudes to traditional marriage as well as supposed homosexual marriage.)

In Ireland, culture war thinking has led an opposition to abortion or divorce to be mixed up with Irish nationalism, opposition to the European Union, and other issues. Now, I am an Irish nationalist, and I am also instinctively hostile to supra-national institutions like the European Union. But I recognize the folly of running all these questions together as part of a "culture war".

The difference between conservatism and Christianity is that there is a definite body of doctrine which says what Christianity is and what it is not. In Catholicism, especially, this is the case.

But if Christians or Catholics do want to fight under the banner of conservatism (whatever that might mean), it seems important to me that they remember they are conservative because they are Christian, and not Christian because they are conservative.

Life Sucks

Those words have been written by some grafitti artist on a wall outside Ballymun Shopping Centre. Every time I see them, I feel a surge of happiness, almost of elation. Because I know that that kind of full-bodied nihilism only ever comes from somebody who has little to complain about. It certainly wasn't written by a mother of five who has one child in a special needs school and isn't sure how she is going to feed any of them. It wasn't written by a man with a degenerative disease or a teen suffering from social phobia.

It was written by some well-fed, well-dressed, hot-headed young man (almost certainly a man) who feels the world falls short of his hopes for it.

Perhaps I sound sardonic, but I'm really not. I always feel the better for knowing there are people like that out there. Every time I see a piece of grafitti that reads "Punks not Dead", I am moved. It makes me think of some kid whose mental horizon is dominated by punk rock and the attitude of wider society to punk rock, for whom this is THE burning issue. Could anything be more charmingly innocent?

The kind of negativity that I find truly corrosive and toxic is the smirking, blasé, eye-rolling, ironic negativity that refuses to take anything seriously. But someone who daubs "Life Sucks" on a wall is obviously a blazing idealist at heart.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Another Night Defending Church Teaching from All Comers

I was at a dinner party tonight and ended up defending (once again) the teachings of the Catholic Church from half the table. The other half were joking around or just listening in amusement.

If you are an orthodox Christian today, it seems you are an apologist by default.

Themes tonight:

1) The Vatican is just a business.
2) The Church only cares about unborn babies before they're born; after they're born, they won't take care of them.
3) Catholic charities DO take care of the poor and needy but this just encourages the State to relinquish its duties. (The Church can't win.)
4) The Church is scared of questioning, and that's why it silenced Fr. Tony Flannery and Fr. Brian D'Arcy.
5) Irish women lived lives of misery before the advent of widespread contraception.
6) I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to sexual ethics in marriage because I'm not married.
7) Women who were contented with their lot before the sexual revolution were brainwashed. (I suggested women today might just as easily be brainwashed.)
8) Jesus never laid down hard-and-fast rules.
9) Priests have nothing to do all day.

I was told afterwards that I defended Chuch orthodoxy well, but perhaps that was just my companions being graceful.

More from Harpenden-- a Feat of Bell-Ringing

From the Parish Notes section of The Harpenden Parish Magazine, March 1914, written by the formidable rector Kean M. Pitt:

The ringers were present at a short, simple but very reverent service, when the tablet commemorating the fact that a Peal of Grandsire Triples was rung in this Church by them, in 2 hours 57 minutes. This means, that in the whole of that time with 5040 changes taking place, no slip was made; for a slip means utter confusion. When one remembers, that swinging in the air is a total weight of over four tons, controlled by the Ringers, it is an accomplishment to be proud of. I was very pleased and gratified by a kindly deed on their part, showing, I take it, that between the Ringers and the Rector there is a real bond of good feeling and mutual respect. This was, the presentation to me, of a beautifully framed photograph of the Ringers, with the tablet in the centre. I shall value this greatly. Really, how greatly, kindly encouraging acts of this sort, oil the wheels of one's daily task. At the same time a similar presentation was made to Mr. David Dellar, who is secretary for the Guild of Ringers, and has been a ringer himself for 30 years.

Of course, they are all dead ringers now. God bless them all!

More from Harpenden-- How New Are the New Atheists?

From the Parish Notes of the April 1913 issue of The Harpenden Parish Magazine:

We want to complete the scheme for the Parish Church, and there has come to the front a most urgent need, and one which I feel I must press along. WE MUST ENLARGE COLD HARBOUR SUNDAY SCHOOL. I can't rest with the fact before me, that the school having increased its numbers so largely, is now, together with the Mission Church, which is also used as a Sunday School, unable to cope with the demands on its space. WE MUST ENLARGE THE SCHOOL. This is not an age in which we can neglect the children. Forces are at work, men and women are straining to teach children to blaspheme God. They are in earnest, and money is forthcoming to build and rent places where the children can be educated on a Sunday to deride the Christian faith. In London, in all our big towns, such efforts are increasing by leaps and bounds. And I must appeal to you my parishioners, who are true believers in the Divine Master, to strengthen my hands and cheer my heart, by your ready response to my appeal.

This volume is absolutely and utterly fascinating. Best three euro I ever spent.

How Things Change

From The Harpenden Parish Magazine, July 1910:


On the Sunday following Empire Day, special reference was at St. John's Church to the reasons which led up to this yearly event, and the life and character of the good Queen, under whom the greater part of our Empire was built up. In the morning the Rector made allusion in his sermon to our individual responsibility in regards to this Great Nation and Empire, of which we are privileged to be members. The Evening Service was attended by the Harpenden and Luton Boy Scouts, under command of Lieut. W.S. Daniels, Major E. Chester Rogerson, and Scout-Master Jackman respectively. The column was headed by the ST. John's C.L.B. Band, under Staff-Sergt. H. Holland. The preacher was the Captain and Assistant Chaplain of the St. John's Company who, in his sermon, laid stress on the fact of our Empire having been built up by self-control and perseverance, founding his remarks upon the story of Joshua and the capture of Jericho. He appealed to those present to prepare themselves for serving their country better by putting down the evils of juvenile smoking, drinking, gambling and betting. The National Anthem was sung with great heartiness at the close of each service.

And now, read this from the "What we Believe" section of the website of today's St. John's Church, Harpenden (incidentally the parish magazine, which was weekly a century ago, now appears four times a year):

We welcome you to our Parish Website which introduces you to our church family in the place we affectionately and geographically call The Church on the Common.

St John's is an open and inclusive fellowship where every person, regardless of age, background or religious experience is valued and equal. We seek to follow the example of Jesus who welcomed people into his orbit and care wherever they happened to be on the spectrum of faith.

We aim to make our worship both reverent and relaxed, using the structure of the liturgy to liberate the human spirit into praise and prayer. We do not offer rigid, prescriptive answers to the great questions of faith but seek to engage in constructive thinking about our place in the world.

We value equally both Word and Sacrament and place a high premium on creative and engaging preaching.

Children are a valuable and valued part of our congregation; we believe they are the church of to-day and tomorrow. St John's has a lively Creche, Junior Church and Youth Group. It is our practice to prepare children to receive Holy Communion from the age of seven.

We encourage you to discover the many facets of our corporate life recorded on the Website. Do come along and join us for worship and see whether St John's is the place which seems right for you.

I think I prefer Empire Day, myself.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Nationalism Once Again

I usually take two buses to work and two buses home every working day, and have done so since 2001. In the last year or so I've made a habit, intermittently, of taking one bus from UCD to the city centre and then walking the rest of the way home.

Today, for the first time ever (as far as I can remember), I decided to walk all the way. Waiting at bus-stops can get pretty irksome; and besides, I felt an appetite for the exercise, the air, and the time alone with my thoughts.

A bookshop that I always pass by on my bus journey to and from UCD is Hampton Books in Donnybrook. Passing by bookshops without getting to go inside is a terrible deprivation, so today I was pleased to see that it was open, despite it being well into the evening.

I'd been in before, but only once before. It is certainly a very handsome, well-kept, and cosy bookshop-- so small it has no aisles, only shelves against the wall. The selection of books is not great but it hardly would be, being the size of a living room. I didn't see any religion shelf. There was one "Positive Living" shelf, which made me cringe a little.

But there was a poetry shelf, which to me, is the single most important feature of a decent bookshop.

I browsed through the poetry books with especial interesting this evening. I am going to a dinner party tomorrow, and I've made a habit of reciting a poem whenever I meet up with this particular group. (I am always very jealous of the honour of poetry, and careful of giving it a place at the table-- metaphorically and literally, I suppose.) I'm not sure what poem to recite tomorrow night so I was looking for ideas.

I picked up a volume entitled The Nation's Favourite Poems. But I found myself less interested in the contents than it the train of thought, and in the emotional reaction, that the title itself evoked.

I think I could say that the reason I am a nationalist-- the reason that I believe in the concept of the nation-- is because of a title like The Nation's Favourite Poems. Just repeat it to yourself. The Nation's Favourite Poems. Twirl it around in the palette of your mind. The Nation's Favourite Poems.

I seem to have been debating nationalism all my life. Probably we all have. A series of posts on this blog that continues to generate above-average traffic is my friendly exchange of thoughts on this subject with fellow Catholic blogger, Young Ireland. They can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

The objections to nationalism are manifold and powerful. Nationalism is divisive and exclusive, and can breed racism and bigotry. Nationalism can feed explosive tensions and fanaticism. For Marxists, and those of a Marxian disposition, nationalism papers over class consciousness and is simply a mechanism wherewith the boss class exploits the workers. For Christians, who have no earthly city, nationalism is a this-worldly distraction from our pilgimage to the Heavenly Jerusalem. For aesthetes, nationalism replaces poetry with propaganda, and art with identity politics.

All of them good arguments, even the Marxist one. And yet, and yet...

And yet there is still The Nation's Favourite Poems, nagging me.

When I come across a title like The Nation's Favourite Poems, I don't think of wars or ethnic cleansing or demonstrations or zealotry. I think of a woman sitting in an armchair reading a book of poems, by an open fire. But there is something else in the room with her-- not something she is actively thinking of, or even aware of, but there. It is the whole idea of the nation as a landscape against which she lives her life.

"The nation" is a funny term. In one way is a grand, even a grandiose term. Terms like "The birth of a nation", "the march of a nation", "the nation's finest", all give us a sense of vast expanses and lofty heights. We see pedestals and fluted columns and brass plaques and eagles plunging through the sky and crowded city squares. The very word "nation" seems to suggest a broad canvas of space and time.

And yet, at the same time, "the nation" and "national" are curiously intimate terms. They speak of home and familiarity and belonging. They speak of the sounds and sights that pierce your heart when returning from some faraway land. They speak of things that you have actually seen with your own eyes, not once but many times-- the Molly Malone statue in Dublin, a game of hurling, a packet of Tayto crisps. They speak of in-jokes and shared memories and the idiosyncracies of accent and phraseology. They speak of home, of us, of the difference between here and out there.

I contend there is no idea, no institution that combines grandeur and intimacy as does the idea of the nation. And that is why I am a nationalist-- that is, somebody who believes in the idea of the nation and in preserving the institution of the nation.

I am a nationalist because of The Nation's Favourite Poems, National Irish Bank, National Lampoon, Irish Nationwide, the national grid and The Carlow Nationalist.

I am a nationalist because I think human beings need a human scale to live on. I think that it is alienating in the extreme to feel oneself a mere drop in the vast ocean of humanity. And yet that is the inevitable outcome of cosmopolitanism, internationalism and globalization.

I am a nationalist because I think nationalism, paradoxically, makes the world seem a bigger and more exciting place. The contrast between your own country and the wide, weird, wonderful world outside-- where they eat dogs and rub noses and sleep in the middle of the day-- only heightens our sense of the world's infinite possibilites and unimaginable vastness. As Chesterton said, "the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

I am a nationalist because The World's Favourite Poems stirs my imagination far less than The Nation's Favourite Poems.

I am a nationalist because I couldn't help it, even if I wanted to.

Who Would Have Thought It?

Young English woman is converted, not by a hip young spiritual guru who talks down to her, but by a scholarly old Pope who challenges her preconceptions and demands great things from her.

But is that really so strange after all?

A Tale of Two Slogans

A few years go, there was an informal competition amongst the staff in the university library where I work to come up with a slogan for an information stand. The information stand was for the university Open Day. The prize was a bottle of wine.

I suggested the slogan "From Socrates to Cyberspace". I was quite pleased with it (even though I see now that it is not original). I thought it conveyed the sheer range of knowledge that makes a library such an exciting place. I thought the mention of Socrates gave it a cultural and historical dimension, while the mention of cyberspace was-- well, pretty much obligatory.

The slogan that won was "The Library: Information Hotspot". Back then, I didn't even know what an information hotspot was. That particular slogan was contributed by the fellow who organized the competition.

I'm over it. Really, I'm over it. But today it occurred to me that the two slogans might be taken as expressing two different visions of what a library is about. And guess which one is all the rage?

I Don't Get This At All

Peter Hitchens on the theory of evolution:

First, what do these two gentlemen think my position is on the theory of evolution by natural selection? I will re-state it, yet again. It is that I am quite prepared to accept that it may be true, though I should personally be sorry if it turned out to be so as, it its implication is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.

This just leaves me uncomprehending. Why on earth wouldn't God work through secondary causes? We believe He created each one of us, without taking any of the credit from our mothers and fathers as proximate causes. And isn't evolution itself rather miraculous, when you look at it?

I would love to see the theory of evolution disproved. Not because it is any challenge to my faith. Simply because I would take tremendous glee in seeing Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and all the other bullish Darwinists having to admit that the Intelligent Design crowd were right after all.

But I don't expect that. I really don't think there is a conspiracy by hundreds of thousands of biologists all over the world to hoodwink the public. Anti-Darwinists have been predicting the imminent demise of the theory of natural selection for at least a hundred years now, just like Socialist Worker party members confidently anticipating the downfall of "capitalism".

I am ignorant of all science, but I understand from my cursory reading that some details of the evolutionary theory remain shrouded in mystery. But how foolish it is to base your faith, and (for a Christian) the meaning of your entire life, on ignorance!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I Absolutely Love This Picture

Not only for the fact that different religious leaders are praying together, but for the deep seriousness that is etched on their faces and evident in their postures. (They are actually praying before the tomb of St. Francis of Assissi). I think it's a way better illustration of ecumenism than that stupid "Coexist" bumper sticker (if you haven't seen the bumber sticker, its image is formed-- fairly cleverly, I must admit-- using various religious symbols such as the cross and the Star of David to represent the letters).

Incidentally, readers may have noticed that I hardly ever use pictures in this blog. It's mostly because I am iffy about the question of copyright. I've ventured to use this picture because it is so widely reproduced that it seems to be in the public domain, and also because I imagine it originated from the Church itself. I would welcome advice in this regard-- is it fair use to take images from news websites, and so forth?

Christian Humility

This morning, I came across this passage in Newman's "Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford", and was rather struck by it:

This was one especial consequence of the pantheistic system of the Stoics, the later Pythagoreans, and other philosophers; in proportion as they drank into the spirit of eternal purity, they became divine in their own estimation; they contrasted themselves with those who were below them, knowing no being above them by whom they could measure their proficiency. Thus they began by being humble, and, as they advanced, humility and faith wore away from their character. This is strikingly illustrated in Aristotle's description of a perfectly virtuous man. An incidental and unstudied greatness of mind is said by him to mark the highest moral excel1ence, and truly; but the genuine nobleness of the virtuous mind, as shown in a superiority to common temptations, forbearance, generosity, self-respect, calm high-minded composure, is deformed by an arrogant contempt of others, a disregard of their feelings, and a harshness and repulsiveness of external manner. That is, the philosopher saw clearly the tendencies of the moral system, the constitution of the human soul, and the ways leading to the perfection of our nature; but when he attempted to delineate the ultimate complete consistent image of the virtuous man, how could he be expected to do this great thing, who had never seen Angel or Prophet, much less the Son of God manifested in the flesh?

People say over and over and over that all religions are the same, that conscience by itself can arrive at the truths of morality, and that there is no need of revealed religion to teach us how to be good.

Well, I do think it is true that the moral law is incribed on the human heart, but that is far from admitting that humankind is always or even usually successful at reading or following that law. And one virtue that I think is rare outside the ranks of Christians is humility-- I mean a studied, deliberate, principled humility.

This is one of the reasons I love G.K. Chesterton so much. Chesterton seems to have been both naturally humble, and also to have striven after humility. He must have been conscious of his tremendous gifts, but he always makes light of them. It would be easy for a critic to say that there is a kind of mendacity or false modesty in this. But it is my experience that people who complain about "false modesty" are rarely possessed of sincere modesty, either.

Contrast, for instance, some lines by W.B. Yeats, who I personally consider to have been, not only the greatest poet in the English language, but the greatest writer of any kind in the English language, ever-- and a genuinely great man, to boot. This is a quotation from his poem, "The People":

‘What have I earned for all that work,’ I said,
‘For all that I have done at my own charge?
The daily spite of this unmannerly town,
Where who has served the most is most defamed,
The reputation of his lifetime lost
Between the night and morning. I might have lived,
And you know well how great the longing has been,
Where every day my footfall should have lit
In the green shadow of Ferrara wall...

Now, can you imagine Chesterton writing that? Or anything like that? And is the difference not the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian worldview?

I think humility is the most "unnatural" of virtues, in a colloquial sense of the term "natural". When we look at pre-Christian societies, the unabashed boastfulness is perhaps the feature that offends us most of all. And in our increasingly post-Christian world, this seems to be returning.

Thanks Be to God

Some days ago I asked for prayers for my father, who was not feeling well and who had to go to the hospital for tests. I would like to thank everyone who prayed, and most of all thank God, since the tests have revealed nothing upsetting so far, and he seems to be feeling better. Deo gratias.

Capitalism Must be Destroyed

Not really. I don't think capitalism can or should be destroyed because capitalism simply means the free exchange of goods. I do, however, believe that the exchange of goods is an act with implications for all of society, meaning that the exchange of goods can never be, and should never, be absolutely free, unless we are talking about a cake sale or a parish raffle or something like that.

But I didn't really want to have a heavy sociological discussion about the justice and limits of the capitalism system. Instead, this post is prompted by an advertisement I saw on the side of a bus as I was coming to work today.

It was for a new Cadbury's product, Cadbury's egg 'n' spoon. They are sold in a box of four chocolate eggs, which contain chocolate mousse, and the box comes with a plastic spoon that you use to scoop up the mousse. I can't find the ad online, and I don't remember the exact text, but it concentrates on the novelty of a chocolate egg you can eat with a spoon.

This depresses me. It makes me think of Hamlet's famous solliloquoy:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!

And was this paragon of the animals created to dream up advertising campaigns like this?

Don't get me wrong. I don't think there is anything wrong with chocolate-- in fact, I am its heartiest admirer. I don't think there is anything wrong with advertising chocolate. I think advertising for chocolate, as with advertising for most products and services, gives an almost infinite scope for ingenuity and harmless amusement.

What I do object to are the increasingly bizarre gimmicks and novelties that companies resort to in order to win half of a half of a half of one percent of market share. A chocolate egg with a spoon? It's an insult, both to the customer and the people who dreamed it up.

But mostly to the people who dreamed it up. Human beings with immortal souls, and with intellects and imaginations whose capacities we cannot even begin to fathom, sat around a table somewhere and "brainstormed" this rubbishy idea. Not only did they brainstorm it, but I'm sure it went through months of revisions and "tweaking" and fine-tuning and market research and focus grouping and goodness alone knows what. This demanded the best mental exertions of grown men and women, men and women who devoted an all-too-large chunk of their all-too-brief moments on Earth to dreaming up a chocolate egg that comes with a spoon.

It reminds me of this great speech from The Fall and Rise of Reginal Perrin, in which a middle-manager at a dessert company has a midlife existential breakdown and delivers this drunken rant at a conference:

We are told that we need more growth: 6% per year. More chemicals to cure more pollution, caused by more chemicals. More car parks for more tourists who want to get away from more car parks. More food, to make us more fat, to make us use more slimming aids, to make us take pills, to make us ill, to make us take more pills, to make more profit. More boring speakers, making more boring speeches, at more boring conferences. But what has all this growth done for me? Well, I'll tell you. One day I'll die, and on my grave it will say: "Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. He didn't know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig Holstein." Look outside at those trees - beautiful. But soon they will all be cut down to make room for more underground car parks. But I have got good news for you, because half the parking meters in London have got Dutch Parking Meter disease.

Smash capitalism? No. But I do think a chocolate egg that comes with a spoon is an insult to humankind, created a little lower than the angels.

But, But, But, But, But...

The fact that it was Ash Wednesday yesterday gave rise to another discussion about religion with a member of my family-- one that I don't see on a daily basis but who was visiting.

A lot of old ground was covered. What if you had a child who turned out to be homosexual? How could you accept them without approving of their choice of life-- how would that feel to them? Isn't it better that sexually active teens should be told to use contraception rather than simply ordered to abstain and end up hiding their activities from you? Why do Christians have to broadcast their faith, as with the wearing of ashes on Ash Wednesday, rather than keeping their religion a private thing? Isn't religion just about living a good, moral life? Can't living a good, moral life be boiled down to kindness and not wanting to hurt people? Do you really believe in heaven? Wouldn't it be better to have no images of God or heaven since they are beyond human comprehension? Isn't it easy for a man to accept Catholic teaching as it affects women? Would human beings turn to religion if they had no frustrations or disappointments in their lives?

I did my best to answer all those questions, and I don't think I did too badly, but I always come away from such conversations with a sense of disappointment in my own responses. Why do I grope for, and often mangle, Gospel quotations that I have read a hundred times, and I have heard from the ambo so often? Why do arguments that seem so clear in my own mind come out so tortuously when I try to express them?

But the argument that I can't help taking to heart-- when it comes from a member of one's own family-- is the argument that religion is a crutch, or a kind of compensation for the things you lack in your own life. It does embarrass me that my own faith could be seen like that. I know how vain and prideful that response is. But I wish I had explained better that, in my own experience, I have felt the hunger for God most in my happiest and most magical moments, rather than in my darker interludes. In fact, when I have felt most alienated and angry, my bitterness has built a wall between me and God.

Perhaps my Lenten exercise could be to read nothing but the Gospels, over and over and over, so I no longer find myself straining for an allusion.

Happy Valentine's Day!

I do not join in the anti-Valentine's Day chorus for several reasons:

1) It has its origins in Christianity;
2) It is not a made-up "Hallmark holiday" but one that goes back centuries;
3) I am passionately in favour of special and "themed" times and places, in general.
4) It doesn't have to be a commercial racket. Like all festivals, you could observe it without being extravagant.
5) I got a free chocolate heart with my cup of coffee in the UCD café this morning.

Things that are not so good about Valentine's Day:

1) You can't check for mail (as I do every single day, both in work and at home; I love getting things in the mail, please note my address is 74 Sillogue Gardens, Ballymun, Dublin 11) without everyone assuming you are looking for a Valentine's Day card;
2) If you look gloomy, you are suspected of being downcast that you are left out.
3) Danger of Barry White songs being played on the radio and in shops, etc.

So that's five good points and three bad points. And I have to admit that I like Barry White so even that is a good point.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

All you Need to Know about Pope Benedict

At least according to the bullet points on the BBC news site:

* At 78, one of the oldest new popes in history when elected in 2005

* Born in Germany in 1927, joined Hitler Youth during WWII and was conscripted as an anti-aircraft gunner - but deserted

* As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, spent 24 years in charge of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition

* A theological conservative with uncompromising views on homosexuality and women priests.

So there you have it, boys and girls.

Once again, in case you forgot; there is no anti-Christian or anti-Catholic bias in the media and if you think there is, it's just your persecution complex.

Chesterton Society Meeting

In 2010, along with my friend Angelo Bottone, I started the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland. As anyone who has read a few posts of this blog might have noticed already, I am an enormous Chesterton fan. He is easily my favourite author, and reading him never fails to inspire and arouse me. The two books that were instrumental in convincing me of the truth of theistic belief and Christianity were The Last Superstition by Edward Feser and Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton.

For me, Chesterton has that most essential ingredient of a favourite author; that he says all the things that I dimly felt, but was never able to put into words, and he says them better than I can imagine anybody else saying them.

I think our modern society cries out for an injection of Chesterton; its ennui cries out for his gusto, its tired sophistication cries out for his hearty innocence, its weariness cries out for his wonder, its greed cries out for his gratitude. So I thought that Ireland, like other countries, should have a Chesterton society.

Unfortunately, I am a terrible organizer, mostly on account of my shyness and my awkwardness about ever asking anybody for anything, so the Chesterton society has had a rather spasmodic and flickering existence. Still, people have come along to all the meetings so far. I hoped the thing might gain a momentum of its own, but unfortunately that never happened.

In any case, we are ploughing ahead, and the sixth Irish Chesterton Society meeting will take place on 16th of March at twelve o'clock, in the Central Catholic Library in 74 Merrion Square. (The Central Catholic Library have kindly let us use their facilities since our second meeting.)

Any readers who are Chesterton fans and who are free that afternoon might think about toddling along.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Women in the Church

I recently volunteered to be a minister of the Word in my parish. This evening we had a meeting of ministers of the Word and the Eucharist. Present were; the priest, the deacon, me, one other fellow...and sixteen women.

I guess this just reflects what a misogynistic boy's club the Catholic Church really is. That's why the women stay away in droves.

Ultimately, we don't know why the priesthood and dioconate are restricted to men, any more than we know why Christ only called men as his apostles.

But one theory on the question of female ordination that I found very interesting and original was that of David R. Carlin Jr., a sociologist who makes this point:

If women were to be ordained, they would soon — within 50 years, I’d guess — become overwhelmingly predominant in the priesthood. Female priests would outnumber male priests by ten or 20 to one, if not more. Catholicism would be perceived, and correctly so, not just as a “feminine” religion but as a female religion. Males would pretty much abandon it.

Read the whole article (from Crisis magazine) here.

Catholicism has tended, historically, to be seen as rather a feminine religion. Often it has been decried as such. (I can't help thinking that the hostility some Protestants have harboured towards the way Catholics honour the Virgin Mary has something to do with this. Their hostility to the emphasis Catholics put upon ritual, vestments, incense and so forth might also be a kind of rejection of the feminine.)

Sometimes defending the male priesthood is a bit embarrassing for a man. It seems like you're just defending a privilege, even though it's a privilege that will never apply to me personally. It doesn't make me any less convinced of the rights and wrongs of the thing, though.

Street Poetry

The Street

Today I will take to the street, the living street,
Where life is happening always and endlessly.
Today I will lose myself in the restless street
And add my feet to the thousands of other feet
That move along it, indifferent to me.

Today I am tired of voices filling a room
And the little hollows bound by wall and wall.
Today my spirit is restless for more room
And the highest roof would still seem like a tomb
And all I can hear are the public places’ call.

Today I’ll go out without a past or a name
Or anything else that makes me who I am.
I will search the street for something I can’t quite name
That draws my steps and fills my heart with a flame
And calls to me from a crowd or a traffic jam.

Today I want life in the raw, life caught by surprise;
Life happening all at once, life bubbling over.
I’ve almost forgotten the world is a vast surprise
And I stand in awful danger of growing wise
And losing the startled ecstasy of the lover.

Today I will glory in litter that blows on the breeze
And street corner preachers and little unvisited lanes
That run off the bustling streets, so that only the breeze
Runs through them. Today I want raw, rugged melodies;
The rumble of traffic, the gurgle of water in drains.

Today I will take to the street, the echoing street,
The street that is thick with tales and sudden with story.
There is something ancient that lives in the day-bright street
Some spirit too lively, too hurried, for death to defeat,
That remembers Rome and Babylon in their glory.

If This is True, Shouldn't We Boycott Tesco?

Warehouse staff forced to wear armbands to monitor their workrate. It seems like a clear affront to human dignity to me.

Update, 15th February: I wrote to Tesco and got this response:

Dear Maolsheachlann

Thank you for your email. My name is Ann and I am a Customer Service Manager for Tesco.

The Tesco distribution centre at Donabate is a modern distribution facility employing modern work practices including the use of arm mounted terminals (AMT’s). AMT’s are a paperless order picking system used by our colleagues to help them with their daily workload. This has been common practice since the distribution centre opened and is a feature of working in any modern warehouse facility. AMT’s are a working aid and at no time are they used to monitor colleagues while on their breaks. A collective agreement is also in place with the SIPTU trade union.

Kind regards

Ann-Marie Bunston
Tesco Ireland Customer Service

That seems satisfactory enough, although the sentence "at no time are they used to monitor colleagues while on their breaks" seems a bit iffy to me. Are they used to monitor them during working time? And would executives and managers put up with that kind of monitoring?

All the same, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

Happy Birthday Michelle

Today is my fianceé Michelle's birthday. Happy birthday Michelle! I love you.

Good Reflection on today...

I very rarely look at the site (I might change that) but I really like the meditation today:

The Holy Spirit - not yourself - is the main person in your prayer, and is at work in you when you pray (Romans 8:26). This puts me in mind of an old Latin tag for an extended time of prayer such as a retreat, namely, “vacatio Deo”: it means idleness for God, emptiness before God, a vacation or holiday with God. The time you spend in prayer is time put beyond usefulness to yourself.

Prayer is not useful: it is of a different order.

Read the whole thing here.

I think one of the wonderful things about prayer is that it is a brake on the utilitarian, exploitative attitude towards life and the world. Prayer is not productive in any obvious sense, though of course nothing could be more productive in a profound sense. Isn't it funny that it is Christianity, with its rituals and holidays and other observances, which has probably been the most powerful curb on the Western world's obsessive drive towards money-making, pleasure-seeking, and frenetic activity in general? I remember reading one book about the "golden age" of domestic service in twentieth-century England. Time and again, in this book, it was mentioned that the servants looked forward to church services because it was pretty much their only guaranteed break.

It's funny how, whenever the idea that one can worship God without all these cumbersome rituals and seasons gains in popularity, it's not long before the time saved is being devoted to something very different to religion.

It is customary for conservative Catholics like me to mock "hippie priests". So I think it's only fair to hail Catholic priests, and especially the more left-wing type (who don't necessarily depart from orthodoxy), as pretty much the only hippies we have left, the only people still inclined to hand out "chill pills" to the culture. After all, the hippies weren't wrong about everything. Every heresy contains a grain of truth.