Monday, 26 May 2008

The Lady and The Generals

Rangoon, July 1996

A Year after her release from house arrest, the military authorities in Burma were keeping a close watch on Aung San Suu Kyi

...The meal was nearly ended when she notices the elderly guest to my left struggling to remove some chillies from his food. His fingers are bent with arthritis and he wipes away ineffectually at the red peppers. Nothing is said but I am suddenly aware of her presence leaving my side and moving to where the old man is sitting. With a few deft movements of her hand the offending spices are removed. 'There you go Uncle,' she smiles, 'we must be careful of you stomach.' A few minutes later when the same old man is midway through a long rambling story about Burma's struggle against the British, her secretary appears that the door. He gestures at his watch and mouths the words 'Two O Clock. Meeting with the delegation.' She acknowledges the message but continues listening. I look at my watch and notice that it is already two o'clock. Yet the story continues and Aung San Suu Kyi continues smiling. Names and dates from the distant past are recalled. Her secretary reappears and is starting to look a little frantic. But she will not interrupt the old man, and when he finishes Aung San Suu Kyi waits for a moment before rising from the table.

Although most of our lunch had been taken up with discussing the latest political crisis it is the two exchanges with the old man that are embedded into my memory. For they represented the grace, patience and humility which are essential to any understanding of Aung San Suu Kyi. Most other political leaders of my acquaintance would have been far too preoccupied with their own business, or listening to the sound of their own voice to give him a second thought. But not the woman her supporters call 'the Lady.' For a short time on a stormy afternoon in Rangoon, she made him feel as if he were the only person in the room.

Those close to her admit to occasional feelings of exasperation at her willingness to give time and attention to the endless numbers of supporters and suppliants who come to her home by the lake. When I ask her about it she replies in a tone that seems almost mystified by the question. 'But every person is important. Isn't that what democracy is about, to listen to people? I am a Buddhist, this is a Buddhist country and we value human kindness and compassion,' she says...

Fergal Keane

Aung San Suu Kyi is facing the probable extension of her house arrest. I doubt this will come as a surprise. The Burmese authorities are still impeding aid workers in their work to relieve the depravation of cyclone victims. I have a friend, a priest who I studied with at Heythrop, working in Rangoon. It is not possible to say at the moment how people are faring in the area. There has been no contact via email or telephone. I know from past experience of being 'on the other end of the line', that things are always worse than the news is able to tell. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Burma, and for my friend. The attention that the military junta is receiving is causing them discomfort. Long may the international community keep looking, bearing witness to the human tragedy unfolding before their eyes. Long may they bear in mind Aung San Suu Kyi's thought, 'But every person is important. Isn't that what democracy is about, listening to people?'

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Dissed by McCabe

My liberal tendencies have just had the wind knocked out of them again. I like being challenged by my reading and this extract from Herbert McCabe OP took my sheepish wooly principles and kicked their stuffing across the field. Fleeced.


(Image from Wikipedia)
"I can remember.... the days of liberal progressive Christianity, a form of religion ideally suited to the liberal democratic way of life in which people were expected to be basically rather nice, and changes, if any came about by talking around a table and excersizing your free choices at elections. It was a time when the highest virtue was tolerance and the finest praise you could give people was to say that they were moderate. It was the good old days: a kind of Garden of Eden from which, however, we have all been expelled. This is just as well because it was a place of not very innocent illusions.......

.....In general it is young people who know that the world is lousy, who know about what is happening in places like South America and Northern Ireland. It is older people who have to cling to comforting myths about defending democracy somewhere or bringing prosperity to somewhere else or about how their country's troops are doing a marvelous job in the face of vicious and cowardly attacks. There are just a few people left who believe that the problems are all due to a misunderstanding and if only a few people would talk together it would all be cleared up. All of these people are over 35.........

........Perhaps they should start reading the Gospel of John. It's author is a pretty unchristian writer in any modern meaning of the word "Christian". He has very little to do what we have come to think of Christianity - that rather attractive, idealistic, but ineffective set of attitudes that make up the Christian spirit (a way of responding, a warm friendly way of responding to people, because people are fundamentally nice). He has little to do with Christianity that on the east coast of America has been called a belief in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighbourhood of Boston. This Christianity has, of course, social responsibilities. Christians, you remember, ought to improve things in this world, they ought to play their part in making this world a better place, they ought to help people live together in unobtrusive friendliness, persuading them not to be violent and so on. But with all this Christianity, John has nothing to do. He doesn't want to improve the world. He wants it destroyed. John thinks violence is inevitable, especially if the Gospel is preached. Salvation for him is not making this world a better place. It is salvation from the world. It means smashing and defeating the world, John has no use for the world at all.....

.......John's Gospel (and his Epistles) are much in tune with a generation that simply cannot afford the cheerful optimism of the past. There is a harsh realism about John that says something to us. No writer in the New Testament tells us more about love than John does. And none is less lovely. John directs us to the real world. He makes us look at it. It is in John that we read 'The Truth shall set you free". But for him, seeing the truth is (like love) rare and difficult. For him, indeed, it depends on love. Not loving, though; he doesn't say if you love you will see the truth. For him it depends on being loved. This is love, he says, not that you loved, but the God loved you.

The reason why John might appeal to us is that we have rather recently become aware of the interlocking complexity of evil. I mean the time has gone when we could think about bad actions in isolation, as random results of the individual free will....We have become aware, in fact, of a whole system of human exploitation, a balanced and self adjusting system, almost like an animal organism, a very resilient and flexible system...If you attack it in one place, it adjusts itself. It may appear to give into your attack, but in fact it has found another way of carrying on its life........
.......We have become aware of this complex system; we have become aware, in fact, of the World. Because this is exactly what John means when he talks about the World. The world for him plainly does not mean earth, the world of nature, creation, the material things around us. It means the way of being together that people have worked out.....
....In John's view you cannot tinker with this world. We need to be redeemed from it. The attempt to work within it to improve it only means in the and that you are co-opted by it and find yourself working for it. ....In this world, for John, there is no brotherhood of all men, and any attempt to pretend that there is is illusion and deception. For him we shall only have real brotherhood when this world has been destroyed and a new one has arisen, when the world has gone through a conversion, a radical change, a change that means the ending of an old life, the complete collapse of the old system, and the start of a new one." 

(Rain in a young star system: very complex, inescapable)

I think that McCabe is being deliberately provocative in his analysis of John's Gospel. But isn't that brilliant? He stopped me dead. I felt my liberal views had just been slapped and thrown out of a top floor window. I am not sure when he wrote this essay, but it was clearly some years ago - 15 maybe? Politics has changed, but I think 'the system' McCabe talks about is still around. In the context of this essay 'the system' is linked to the idea of 'original sin', something that is always wrong with the World. It is a powerful piece of writing - designed, I think, to wind you up and make you think. It works. At first I thought he was cracked and all wrong, then I thought he was onto something - now, I think I might think he is cracked, too pessimistic about the human race, sounds like a raging hippy blaming 'the system' for all the ills of the world when really people just need to get off their backside. It could take hours of 'putting the world to rights' conversation, with a bottle of wine in the small hours, to sort this one out. And I could be proved wrong thousands of times over, because McCabe is a genius. Excellent. Cheers Herbert.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Blessed Sunrise: Memory and Practicality

Walking the Camino de Santiago I saw some of the most beautiful sunrises. Everyday they made my day. It gave me a chance to greet the day ahead.

I am not someone who is good at staying up very late. I generally like the morning. However, neither have I natural ability to bounce out of bed at dawn. That takes some self control and discipline. I really adore sunrise. It is easy for me to watch this glorious moment during winter because I see the beginning of a brand new day on my way to school. In summer though, I have to try and get up earlier and earlier to greet the new day. Believe it on not, this has its advantages. It is however, hard to do at first, and you have to warm yourself into it.

I have started in the last two weeks setting my alarm 15 mins earlier, last week and this week 30 mins earlier. This means that at the moment I wake to greet the day at around 5.30am, but as the summer term moves on I will probably work towards getting up around 5am. There are secrets to enjoying the beginning of the day. I could write for hours of them, but I think it would be more useful to tell you about my rules and reasons. Please be aware, that I try with these. I fail too!

1. If you want to see the day early think of your ideal time for getting up and work towards it in 15 mins, setting your alarm earlier in stages.

2. Don't press snooze, put your alarm clock as far away from the bed as possible.

3. Get out of bed straight away, and go and do something! (I go for a pee and brush my teeth! By the time I have seen my ugly mug in the mirror I am awake through sheer shock!)

4. Use the extra time to do something that you like! Read the paper and have some yummy breakfast, meditate, think about the day and walk around the garden!

5. Make a list of the things you have to do that day...and then do half of them before anyone else gets up.

6. Listen to the peace and quiet.

7. Set off early to work so you can go slowly and do not have to rush.

In the summer especially, I think that this is a brilliant way of keeping my cool in the ups and downs of a day. I admit that it is tricky at first. And in the dark winter I do not like it. But summer is all about the light.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The world is my cloister...

So, I know you have guessed by the return of the Stations of the Cross that we are now in Ordinary Time. I think this is the most strangely named of the religious seasons. Ordinary? In the Gospel reading so this year there will be healings, miracles, preaching about the Kingdom of God; it is not really ordinary is it? Weird would be a better word. Weird Time.

The title of this post is reflective of my recent facebook status. I put it there because I had experienced a day of people expressing the thought that I am incredibly lucky person. It is true I am, but the truth of it does not lie in the luck, but in the blessings, and none of them are deserved. Things could easily be different. When I wake up tomorrow they might be different.

When I think about my life, and mostly I do this in the childish terms of  'what would I like to be when I grow up?', I generally have an idea that this decision, although completely freely mine, has a right answer. Obviously, I do not know, and am not sure I ever will, what the right answer is. In fact, I might be completely wrong about there being a right answer at all. But the sensation remains. This has an immediate effect on the way I make decisions. I tend to think about them for a long time, not prevaricating, but in way that demands both my attention and God's.  You see, as a theist, God has to have something to do with my life.  God knows what though.

'The world is your oyster' is what people say when I tell them about my plans. It is true, anything is possible. But oysters tend to remind me of a certain yuppie culture concerned with money, status and power: snobbishness, really. That is what I dread. The radical truth, to my way of thinking is that anything is possible, but more so when you talk about God. I have a passion for rhyme, and so changed oyster to cloister. I think this suits my temperament better. The world is where I operate, and it is where I pray. The world is where I best encounter God, live out human relationships and come to an understanding of myself and the purpose of my existence. Anything is possible, anything might change. Oysters come and go, but the world as my cloister, that is here to stay.

The picture with this blog comes from Into Great Silence, a very great film about the depth and necessity of cloisters.

Monday, 12 May 2008

XI. Jesus is nailed to the Cross

Illustration: Unknown

We adore you O Christ and we praise you
Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world

'And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him the the place callled Golgotha (which means the place of the skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him'
Mark 15: 21 - 25

Monday, 5 May 2008

Am I Normal?

Okay, so don't answer that too quickly.

I just watched a programme on BBC with the self same title. It was about spirituality, religious belief and mental health. Dr. Byron, presenting the programme, was investigating the line between claiming to have a personal relationship with God, and hearing voices. She wished to know if there were a difference between the two, and asked why society found the first to be acceptable, but rejected people who found themselves in the second category as mentally ill.

So, for a programme presented from the secular outlook 'Am I Normal?' was surprisingly balanced. Dr. Byron visited a clinic in which people who heard voices explained to scientists how they experienced their self contained conversations. This aspect was very enlightening indeed, and it showed how many patients have suffered under the label 'mentally ill', where in previous lives they would have been accepted as entirely normal. Dr Byron also visited the Carmelite Monastery in Notting Hill and spoke with the Prioress. Byron explained that if she were come across a patient, in her career as a clinical psychologist, who had shut herself away from the world, rarely spoke and claimed to have a personal relationship to the divine, she would probably diagnose depression. The Prioress explained that the only life worthy of all her energy was one which was devoted to the ultimate, to God. Then, there was an american neurologist who proved that a Pastor speaking in tongues did not access the part of his brain normally responsible for language, and the feeling of being in control.

There was, however, something about the programme which bothered me. It was the assumption from some of the commentators that believing in God, and organizing your life around a religious belief system was the 'easy option', and that coping in the big wide world without God required 'mental agility' beyond the capacities for the religious. Just where does the secular world get the idea that believing in God is easy, or that faith comes without a struggle? The Carmelite Prioress even hinted at the challenge which faith presents when she spoke about her own doubts after she first joined the Order: 'There was a voice mocking me which said, 'What if it is all not true? You are going to look such a fool', she explained. Asked what she said in response to this voice she replied: 'Then I will be a fool then. I am going to be a Carmelite. Coming to this monastery was a choice, it was my choice.'

Dr Byron was amazed that faith did not seek after evidence. She maintained that a scientific view would suggest that because God cannot be proved, we should not assume to 'know' something about his existence. A Carmelite sister of her own age explained that the difference between 'knowing' in your head and 'knowing' in your heart are different and distinct. I liked Dr. Byron. She seemed to be genuinely thinking about what she was investigating about 'hearing voices', but I did think that if she were to start listening to the heart of 'religious thinking' then there was a need to stop thinking that a religious worldview is the 'soft option'. Byron concluded by suggesting that hearing voices, and believing that your life guided by God could well be linked, and both were integral to the human condition. But, she thought, it was dangerous if people actually took what they 'heard' or 'believed' and did something about it. So, everyone - stop acting now! This, I thought was a very odd, and for a scientist, rather illogical ending. 

Saturday, 3 May 2008


In terms of visuals Ascension is one of those feasts that is quite capable of giving me the giggles. Every time I try and think seriously about it I get a mental image of very perplexed disciples staring at a pair of feet ascending into the clouds. Sometimes one of them is about to get clonked on the head by some sandy, stinky sandals. Usually while I am thinking these thoughts there is an ernest priest trying to explain why all this is very important and serious indeed.

It is all a bit odd really, isn't it? Has any artist painted it without making the scene look a bit silly? A bit Monty Python? And, what on earth is the point?

After Easter the Church celebrated 40 days of Jesus' resurrection and his appearances among the disciples. Then Jesus goes away - back to his Father, and back into a world the disciples can only glimpse for when they have been listening to him. They say that life is about striving towards your goal. For the disciples, their goal was to follow Jesus. After the Ascension the disciples strive after Him, seeking to live out his teachings through the help of the Spirit. Jesus has gone ahead 'to prepare a place' for his disciples in 'God's space', leading the way for people to follow.

How did it happen in real life? I don't know, but I am not sure that is the point. I like the funny image, but I am not sure it is very helpful - it just makes me smile. If I were to create a mental vision to help me think about the meaning of the Ascension it would have to be something different: the shepherd leading the sheep home, perhaps. Or, the host running ahead to prepare a meal for his guests.