Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Three Popes on Ash Wednesday

The ashes bespeak the emptiness hiding behind the frenetic quest for worldly rewards. They remind us that worldliness is like the dust that is carried away by a slight gust of wind. Sisters and brothers, we are not in this world to chase the wind; our hearts thirst for eternity. Lent is the time granted us by the Lord to be renewed, to nurture our interior life and to journey towards Easter, towards the things that do not pass away, towards the reward we are to receive from the Father. Lent is also a journey of healing. Not to be changed overnight, but to live each day with a renewed spirit, a different “style”. Prayer, charity and fasting are aids to this. Purified by the Lenten ashes, purified of the hypocrisy of appearances, they become even more powerful and restore us to a living relationship with God, our brothers and sisters, and ourselves.

Pope Francis, Ash Wednesday 2022

As we said earlier, quoting St John Chrysostom, the cursing of the ground has a “medicinal” function: meaning that God’s intention is always good and more profound than the curse. The curse, indeed, does not come from God but from sin. God cannot avoid inflicting it, because he respects man’s freedom and its consequences, even when they are negative. Thus, within the punishment and within the curse of the ground, there is a good intention that comes from God. When he says to man, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, together with the just punishment, he also intends to announce the way to salvation, which will pass precisely through the earth, through that “dust”, that “flesh” which will be assumed by the [Incarnate] Word.

Pope Benedict XVI, Ash Wednesday 2012

The very ancient and moving rite of ashes today opens this penitential journey. While putting ashes on the heads of the faithful, the celebrant warns each of them: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return!" (cf. Gn 3:19).

These words also refer to a "return": the return to dust. They allude to the necessity of death and invite us not to forget that we are merely passing through this world.

At the same time, however, the expressive image of dust calls to mind the truth about creation with an allusion to the richness of the cosmic dimension of which the human creature forms a part. Lent recalls the work of salvation, to make man aware of the fact that death, a reality he must constantly face, is nevertheless not a primordial truth. Actually, it did not exist at the beginning, but, as the sad consequence of sin, it "entered the world through the devil's envy" (Wis 2:24), becoming the common inheritance of human beings.

St. John Paul II, Ash Wednesday 1999

Monday, February 20, 2023

Mal's Guide to Lent

It's almost time for Lent! Have a great Lent by following my handy guide.

The most important thing about Lent, of course, is Giving Something Up. If a heathen asks you, "What did you give up for Lent?", and you say, "Nothing", they're going to think: "These Christians don't take themselves seriously anymore".

Here are some suggestions on what to give up, along with the estimated spiritual points gained for each one.

Social media: ten points, if you are a heavy social media user. If you only share the occasional meme about cats once every few months, who are you kidding?

Coffee or tea: twenty points. This is saint-level heroic, but be aware of what St. Josemaria wrote: "Choose mortifications that don't mortify others." If you become Atilla the Hun without your coffee, maybe choose something else. And, for goodness sake, one or the other, not both. That's just stupid.

Chocolate: fifty points. I am privately of the opinion that if you give up chocolate for Lent you will go straight to Heaven should you meet your end before Easter. But this is a private theological opinion and not to be relied upon.

Television: OK, boomer. Twenty points.

Alcohol: Twenty points, but in order to keep your mortification secret you should drink your mineral water or 7-up from a whiskey flask. Look around furtively each time you take a sip.

Karaoke: Twenty points. God love you!

The news and current affairs: Thirty points. You might not have considered this, but consider it now. After six weeks, you might know less about Kanye West's latest adventures than the next guy, but you'll also be less depressed, anxious, resentful, confused, preoccupied with skin pigmentation, and full of suppressed rage towards straight white males or pink-haired social justice warriors.

Music: This is what I've done, several years in a row. Smart-alecks have suggested it's no great sacrifice, considering my taste in music. You could nuance this mortification: for instance, continue to listen to heavy rock but absolutely deny yourself the pleasures of air guitar or air drumming. Or continue listening to funk but don't let yourself tap your feet. Every infraction should involve a financial penalty. For St. Simon Stylites-level penance, listen to your favourite songs but always mute them once they hit the chorus.

Well, that's enough for mortifications. As every homilist and YouTuber is going to tell you this week, Lent is a positive, not a negative thing, it's about growing closer to God, and all that. Here are some positive devotional practices for the time of Lent.

1) Try reading the Bible. For cradle Catholics, this is a holy book composed of the Old and New Testament, to be found in most good bookshops, and even online. Since it's Lent, I suggest reading only these fun books: Leviticus, Numbers, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles.

2) Do the Stations of the Cross-- on one leg.

3) Ask the bore in your life about something that they find fascinating but you find impossibly dull. When they launch into a long discourse, smile and nod and ask questions. (But remember that you are the bore in somebody else's life, and if somebody does this to you, don't be offended.)

4) Do an hour's mental prayer every morning. This actually only takes five minutes in clock time. But it's five minutes that lasts an hour.

5) Perform the spiritual works of mercy. For instance, when a colleague mentions their "partner", you can ask: "By the way, are you married? Because otherwise, it's actually fornication."  This is "rebuking the sinner" and may initiate a fascinating conversation on Christian sexual ethics. It might also land you in an even more fascinating conversation with HR. It's a risk. This blog accepts no liability either way.

6) Do some Lectio Divina. This is actually really trippy and happening. You read the Bible until you come to a passage that really, like, speaks to you, and then you repeat it over and over again like a mantra, going into an inner space where you're totally down with God. You can have a lava lamp and a trance playlist in the background if you like.

These are just some suggestions. There are many, many, many, many, many other guides to Lent. You could actually spend your whole Lenten season watching and reading them. This might be the biggest mortification of all. 

(In case it wasn't obvious-- and if it wasn't, then you're really in trouble-- this is all a joke and not to be taken at all seriously. Apart from the bit about the chocolate.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

A Day in the Life of my Almost-Ideal Ireland

This morning I had an idea while praying my rosary, and ideas that come to me while I'm praying the rosary are usually good ones. I would write an account of life in my ideal Ireland, from the perspective of one person.

Or rather, my almost-ideal Ireland. In a really ideal world, nothing bad would ever happen, and reality would be entirely in conformity to one's wishes. This seems impossible and also, strangely, unsatisfying. So this is my almost-ideal Ireland.

This St. Patrick's Day will be the eightieth anniversary of De Valera's "the Ireland that we dreamed of" speech, often dismissed as "the comely maidens dancing at the crossroads" speech-- though he never mentioned crossroads or dancing.

After decades of derision, the speech has been hailed as a noble vision more recently, even by liberal commentators. So this seems an opportune time to summon up an ideal Ireland, or an almost-ideal Ireland.

I will call my character Fintan. He lives in Rathfarnham in Dublin.

Fintan wakes up at 6:00 a.m. on the 6th of October, 2033. He's a young man, in his early twenties.

He's woken by his radio alarm, which is set to RTÉ Radio 3, a relatively new station. At 6:00 a.m., it plays the Angelus, followed by the National Anthem. Fintan always tries to pray along with the Angelus and stand for the National Anthem, but sometimes he's too groggy to do either.

At 6:02, in between his shower and the rest of his morning routine, he listens to Plé (pronounced "play"), the morning show on Radio 3. Although the title is in Irish, the station is mostly in English. Today it's a discussion of the legacy of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish political leader of the late nineteenth century. For today is Ivy Day, a commemoration of Parnell which had been long neglected but has recently been revived-- a pattern for many old commemorations and holidays, and which may have begun with the St. Bridget's Day public holiday introduced in 2023.

He has a cup of coffee and his morning porridge, enjoying the sober and calm discussion on the radio.

Sometimes he listens to Radio Na Gaeltachta. Fintan is not fluent in Irish, but-- like the rest of the country, it seems-- he's doing his best to learn it. He can now follow most of the shows on RnaG, if the speakers aren't talking too quickly.

He leaves the house, and makes his way to the newly-built St. John Sullivan chapel a short walk from his house. It's a small, plain church, with a statue of the recently-canonized Fr. John Sullivan in a recess. A Jamaican priest performs the morning liturgy. Although the vocations crisis has begun to level out, and this year there were twenty seminarians in the Dublin Diocese, it's now more common to see an African or Asian priest in an Irish pulpit than an Irish one. Every day Fintan prays for new vocations.

Fr. Jamoi preaches on the upcoming abortion referendum, in which the proposal is for a new constitutional amendment on abortion. The campaign is a heated one, but it looks as though the referendum will past. Ever since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in 2022, the prolife movement has had a string of victories worldwide, gathering support not only from conservatives and religious people but even from many on the left. As soon as the Aontú-Fianna Fáil coalition came into power last year, they announced the referendum.

Fr. Jamoi calls for charity and temperance in the debate, and urges the congregation not to forget prayer as the most important weapon. He reads a special referendum message from Pope John Paul III, the newly-ordained Pope who has begun to heal the divide between liberals and conservative in the Church.

After Mass, Fintan walks to work in the local Luach supermarket, where he's a floor manager.

Luach is an Irish supermarket chain that opened in 2030 and now has fifteen locations worldwide. It has won praise for its subdued lighting, tasteful music (much of it Irish), and even for having occasional poems recited over the public address system.

Fintan doesn't love his job, but he doesn't hate it. One of the innovations of Luach was to be more community-oriented, and he enjoys the regular community events which the supermarket holds-- several a week, usually. Today, there is an exhibition of local painters, in the purpose-built events area beside the bakery. "Supermarkets with soul" are an international movement, which begun in Canada some years ago. There's now a single self-service checkout, while there are seven manned checkouts.

At lunch-break, he goes to the local café, Kennedy's, which has replaced the Starbucks which was there until recently. International franchises like Starbucks and MacDonald's have suffered in recent years, casualties of consumer backlash against huge corporations. In all honesty, Fintan rather misses the Starbuck's, although Kennedy's is a perfectly good substitute. He has a club sandwich and coffee, and chats to his colleague Angad. Angad is an Indian, a devout Sikh. They rarely discuss religion, but today they have a cordial discussion on the matter.

Immigration has been significantly reduced in Ireland in the last five years, but relations between the sizeable groups of ethnic minorities, and the indigenous majority, are good. Many of the immigrants are just as enthusiastic about what's been called the Second Gaelic Revival as are the native Irish.

After work, Fintan gets a bus and heads into the city centre. Having forgotten to take a book, he asks the bus conductor (conductors were re-introduced several years ago) for a headset and listens to Raidio Taistil, the in-journey radio station for all of Ireland's public transport. Right now there's a book show, discussing a new book on prehistoric man.

The roads are a lot less busy since the huge expansion of public transport, which started in 2025. Fintan remembers the days when it took two hours to get through Dublin city centre. Those days are long gone.

He gets off in the city centre, and walks to the Cromlech Theatre in Capel Street. Built in 2030, it's a small cinema, theatre, and lecture hall, and he's a regular visitor.

Tonight there's a panel discussion on the subject of George Orwell and his legacy. It lasts two hours and Fintan is only bored a couple of times. Afterwards, there are drinks in the bar, and he runs into his friend Fiona. They head to Nealon's down the road and have a few drinks, mostly talking about Orwell and other writers. They even speak in Irish for a half-hour. It's not the only Irish-language conversation in the pub. They have a dinner of smoked salmon and chips.

They walk together on the bus-stop, and Fintan gets the bus home, listening to Raidio Taistil again-- a current affairs show, this time. The subject is identity politics in universities. Students have begun to push back against the "tenured radicals" in the universities, who are inevitably screaming censorship and intimidation. There have been calls on the Minister of Education to take action against the academic purveyors of identity politics, but she insists that academic freedom is sacred.

Fintan goes straight to bed, but lies awake for a long time, reading old movie magazines. He finally falls asleep listening to three drunks in the street outside singing "The Star of the County Down".

Tuesday, February 7, 2023


An idea which has been taken form in my mind recently is the idea of thingism. Or perhaps Thing-ism.

Basically, thingism is a strong belief in anything that is a "thing".

Surely you have encountered an expression such as "it became a thing", or "it's a thing here", or "I didn't even know that was a thing."

There's an interesting discussion of this idiom here, under the amusing title, "When Did 'a Thing' Become a Thing?".

But I don't want to get waylaid into the fever-swamps of millennial language usage, not to mention fuddy-duddy harrumphing at millennial language usage. 

I mean "thing" in a more fundamental sense, one that predates this particular idiom.

In fact, it predates almost everything, both in the order of time and in the order of consciousness. I'm getting at something very fundamental here.

Whatever you are interested in at any given moment is a "thing". Whatever you are engaged in is a "thing". Whatever you get excited about (especially) is "a thing".

Obviously, however, something can be more "a thing" than something else.

For instance, Christmas is much more of "a thing" than April Fool's Day.

Wine is much more of "a thing" to a wine connoisseur than to someone who only ever drinks it when he's offered a glass.

A Tale of Two Cities is more of "a thing" than A Child's History of England, both by the same author.

Telling ghost stories around the campfire is more of "a thing" than telling a ghost story in a café in a busy street.

And so on.

What am I talking about here? Am I talking about excitement? Am I talking about "hype"? Am I talking about interest?

Yes, yes, and yes. But I think there's something in "a thing" beyond this cluster of adjectives. Something that's very difficult to put into words.

Something is "a thing" when it glows in consciousness. When it draws us. When we find it worth making a fuss over, approaching in a somewhat ceremonial manner, or celebrating.

Obviously, one can have more or fewer "Things" in this sense. Indeed, I have met people who have few if any "Things" in their lives-- or so it seemed to me. They never get excited about anything, never celebrate anything, and have disdain for any ceremony or "fuss" whatsoever.

I've had a lifelong dread of such people. When I was a teenager I called them "death worshippers", long before J.K. Rowling had brought her "Death Eaters" into existence.

Perhaps I'm unfair to such people. As someone once said in a different context, who am I to judge? Nevertheless, there it is.

The opposite camp are the people I like the most. The ones who make "a Thing" about almost everything.

(I've always loved the line in Citizen Kane: "You can't buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you.")

Where Thing-ism is strong, songs are written, pranks are performed, anniversaries are celebrated, nicknames are given, subjects are debated, marches are held, treasures hunts are organized, souvenirs are kept, websites are made, clubs are formed, adjectives such as "Wordsworthian" or "Chestertonian" are formed, and so on.

Not that you have to do anything to make it "a Thing". It's an attitude, not an action.

Where Thing-ism is weak, people go to work, do shopping, do laundry, raise their families, watch television, live from holiday to holiday, and finally die with gratitude to have the whole tiresome business over with. "Life is just one damned thing after another" expresses their philosophy.

Yes, this is a caricature. But, like all caricatures, an exaggeration rather than a fabrication.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Happy St. Bridget's Day


St. Bridget's Day, the start of spring.
Fair lady, be our friend.
You stand before us beckoning
To earrach without end.

("Earrach" is the Gaelic word for spring.)

I posted this poem on Facebook, and was delighted when Ciarán Ó Coigligh wrote a translation of it, which I include below. I've never had one of my poems translated before, and I would be surprised it if ever happens again!

Lá Fhéil Bríde tús an earraigh.
A Bhan-tiarna chóir, is tú ár gcaraid,
seasta romhainn de shíor ár mealladh,
le earrach síor a thabhairt faoi deara.