Monday, 30 July 2007

The new self

Fear not, little flock - you'll find no nonsense here about any concepts of 'a whole new you' or anything of that sort. (I am not selling anything.) I suppose that, whenever I put 'pen' to blog, deep down I'd love to have the insight of Benedict XVI, combined with the wit of Chesterton. Instead, I more often have the problem of having too many ideas instead of too few, and find it easier to sort them out when I not only write but, at least in theory, am sharing them with others. It also is a valuable exercise in unwinding for me - especially necessary on days such as this one, when I not only had a very irritating conversation trying to convince animal control to remove the corpse of a cat from the building premises but sat next to a man on the bus (who really should try Hyde Park Corner...) who supposedly had read somewhere that anyone who protested the war could have everything they own seized. (I've been a dove all of my life - nothing unusual for a Franciscan - and was then haunted by old goblins, fearing that my modest little basement flat would disappear and I'd have to sleep in the street, covered in lice, like Francesco.)

I occasionally write brief meditations for an e-mail list, related to readings for a particular Sunday. Since I've been mildly unwell, and therefore not out and about very much these past few days, I had offered to 'do' the next available Sunday. (You will find the link to the readings if you click the title of this post.) Now, for me to write a 3,000 word essay is very difficult - but to write a 300 word meditation is an effort on a par with walking across the Channel on a tightrope (and with no net.) My first impression, from the readings as a whole, was that idolatry is as regular as the sunrise, and that I am not sure that Hosea, who after all only had to deal with Israel's bowing to Ba'al, wasn't in a position preferable to that of dealing with the self-absorbed, egotistical fool in Luke's parable (who says "I" about five times in one sentence.) At least those bowing to their neighbour's gods might be misled in good faith, where the latter character is worshipping himself.

I love the epistle to the Colossians, and it will come as no surprise that my only regret, in choosing that text, is that I would rather prefer to have floated away on a meditation on the incomparable 'cosmic Christ' hymn of chapter one, rather than the exhortations of chapter 3. After about 543 diversions - covering everything from Genesis to Gnosticism - I finally centred on a verse regarding "the new self - which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator." (Note to the pedantic: yes, I am aware that scholars disagree about whether Paul wrote this epistle. Whether he did or not, the epistle is clearly of the "Pauline school," and I therefore shall use "Paul" rather than "the author of the epistle to the Colossians." I find messages about 'who wrote the New Testament,' just as I do with those about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, to be as stale as a week-old scone.)

Christianity, for many centuries, so often focusses on the afterlife, or on salvation as either the key to heaven or the antidote to hell, that it is easy to forget that Paul was thoroughly Jewish. The kingdom of heaven had arrived for Paul - and, while this concept certainly was not one which most Pharisees would have applied to Jesus of Nazareth, we do need to remember that Judaism had no real concept of the afterlife, with even the idea of a general resurrection being a fairly recent development in Paul's time. God already is Lord of history - we are already the Body of Christ, at God's right hand. For Paul, the Church already shared in the glory of Jesus, though the fullness of that glory was hidden. His exhortations to moral behaviour are not based on reward or punishment in a future life, but are a call to walk in the dignity of those already sharing in heavenly glory. (The Colossians probably were already tired of waiting for the glory for which they hoped, and finding orthopraxy to be banal. If there is any surer testimony to divine grace than that, then as now, people waited for a tomorrow that never seemed to arrive, and based their lives on having heard that a Galilean carpenter rose from the dead, I cannot think of one at the moment.)

It must have been no easy task for a Jewish man (by then a 'heretic' in the eyes of most of his own) to be presenting very new ideas to a Greek community. (Yes, most of the hearers may well have been peasants, but they must have had some inkling of the various 'party lines,' having come of the noble heritage of Alexander's empire.) :) In Greek philosophy, creation is inherently negative - this world is a trial, or even an accident. Only the soul endures - and the concept of 'soul' is basically 'intellect' if Plato is to be believed. By contrast, in Judaism God is a Creator, and not only in the sense of setting a world in motion but in being constantly involved in its history.

Centuries before the time of Jesus, though there was no concept of such a Messiah as He, Israel recognised that we are created in God's image. There are no nature gods such as neighbours of the Hebrews would have imagined. In our humanity, we are the visible 'icons' of the transcendent God. Of course, Jesus' being the divine Person is unique, but, for all of humanity, our true self is that which mirrors the divine qualities.

From the first books of Genesis, speech is constantly the tool of creation and revelation. Notice how "God said let there be..." shows the awesome power of will and communication, and how the words of the prophets and patriarchs (not to mention those such as Paul, who witnessed to the resurrection) relate to accomplishment of, and knowledge of, the divine plan. Our gift of making choices, and of communicating, is one to be cherished.

What of the 'wrath' of God, to which Paul refers? The Hebrew scriptures which Paul would have known were extensively compiled and edited during and after the time of Israel's Babylonian captivity. References to judgement and wrath did not refer to destruction or hatred, which are totally alien to the Creator's nature. Violence is always of human origin (whether in conquerors or when the Son of God was nailed to a cross.) Hebrew writings about wrath were intended to illustrate that God, in a manner beyond our comprehension, always remains involved in, and in control of, his creation and our human history (however poorly Israel seemed to be faring at the moment.) Human wickedness and lust for power cannot thwart omnipotence. Our own wrath mocks the divine power - leading to violence and destructive, not creative, results.

Idolatry is effectively a worship of our false self - the part of us which distorts and abuses the gift of our faculties, where we were created to mirror the divine image in which we were created. Our own abusive language and wrath are perversions of the gift of communication, and of our faculties for reason and choices. Sexual immorality abuses our share in creative power. Greed destroys the joy and gratitude we should be taking in the goods of this world (and sometimes grows into spiritual avarice, where we become blind to love for God and neighbour because we are so concerned with what goods of the heavenly realm we would like to be known to possess.)

We have a unique gift, among all of creation, to share in truly loving relationships - such as existed eternally amongst the Persons of the Trinity. Love cannot be coerced or rooted in fear, but must be a choice. Perhaps this is the reason that divine glory always is hidden. The fullness of it is beyond us, of course, but, were it revealed in the sort of fashion that (for example) calls down twenty legions of angels, it could inspire terror, or magical confusion. This would be incompatible with human freedom.

Now... can you see just how boggled this mind is? :) I'm just hoping that, of these seemingly loose associations, I can compile some sort of a coherent whole. But I can see how Paul (and 'apostles' till the judgement day) would see the importance of cautioning us against the sinful traits mentioned in Colossians. It is not just 'the benefit of society' and the like which is a concern. We are created in the image of God - and our true self will mirror, not distort, creative power, love, and truth.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Shall we finally have sex now?

Caught your attention, did I not? I naturally meant 'the topic of sex,' and what prompted this post was recent nonsense about "The Silver Ring Thing," to which you'll find a link in the heading for this post. (Be assured this is not an endorsement, merely a source for information.) Recently, there was much media coverage regarding a girl (whose father is very involved in the Silver Ring programme), who had quite a controversy with her school about whether this ring, which she saw as a symbol of religious commitment, should be permitted, considering that wearing jewellery is not permitted with the school uniform.

Those who are gluttons for punishment, or who want to laugh aloud while shaking their heads, may search the Internet for Silver Ring 'merchandise' - such as shirts proclaiming "I'm Waiting!" or "Good Girl." I recall a BBC special regarding those involved with the Silver Ring business, and I found it all rather ludicrous. Most of the young people who were interviewed are engaging in oral sex (since when is that not having sex - to anyone but an adulterous lawyer?) and so forth - it appears the girls make pledges based on the authority of their fathers, saving their hymens as gifts to their husbands (I suppose because many men get a thrill from deflowering virgins.) Of course, being a private person and thinking that such things as dignity are not passé, I am wondering why a girl who believes sex belongs only in marriage needs to make that known to anyone except a man with whom she is involved.

The very business of "I'm Waiting!" seems rather prurient to me - as if a girl has to advertise to the world that all the men who must be panting after her have no hopes of a bonk that evening. "Good Girl!" is posturing - I daresay even virgins and chaste married women have a sin of some sort here and there, and such a slogan not only implicitly proclaims oneself as superior to those whose sins are of a different nature than one's own favourites but shows a common but completely erroneous idea that the only sins that matter are those connected with sex.

The Silver Ring site makes it plain that parents "are the leading influence in their children's sexual decision-making," and that their seminars have no graphic information about sex because "this is basically the parent's role." Is there anyone out there who can manage to come to full maturity, not only about sex but in any other area, if they cannot get past wanting to imitate or please parents? (I suppose Francis of Assisi and the teenaged Clare, who rejected their parents' values and embraced a new form of religious life, should be considered sinners for their disobedience and originality.) I'll return to the 'parent's role' in a moment.

What saddens me, not only in this but in much of the attitude towards sex today, is that it never seems to focus on the virtue of chastity. Here I am not speaking in a narrow sense, but of using one's sexuality in a loving, appropriate, responsible manner - whatever one's state of life. The Silver Ring site seems to think these 'pledges' will revolt against a sinful society (if they read the Old Testament, for example, they'd realise that sins of any sort are not reserved to the 21st century - but I suppose their kids cannot read the OT because it contains varied references to sex) and prevent STDs - but the emphasis is largely on negative, natural consequences for behaviour.

It occurs to me that the Christian stress on chastity (here I refer to fidelity in marriage and refraining from sex outside of this commitment) is highly positive, and based on marriage as both a covenant and reflecting God's own covenant with his creation. (Yes, I stress commitment in marriage. Love is not enough if there is no firm covenant.) There is respect for sex as a share in divine, creative power - and I do not restrict this to the few times in any life when procreation takes place. If parents can be the 'main teachers,' I see this not in preaching and snooping, but in presenting an example of commitment and responsibility.

I was a teenager at the height of the 'sexual revolution' (in which I did not participate.) My teachers then were not prudish or ignorant, but had to more or less pretend they thought every person in the class was a virgin who was worrying over whether snogging was a mortal sin. They knew otherwise, of course, but the extreme reserve, and questions shrugged off with 'ask your parents' (even if the question was indirect, as with science or literature), is because a small but vocal number of parents would be in an uproar if their 'role' was usurped. I recall very vividly that two sets of parents (of school mates of mine) who were the most insistent on how all sex education must be the parents' role had children who were quite prolific fornicators.

I have the highest respect for marriage, and consider it to be a sacrament - but the few references that were allowed (and many popular books at the time, when the holiest of couples were urging Paul VI to reconsider on contraception) glorified the state to such an extent that it was unreal. I cannot remember the title now, but one book written by fervent Catholics who wished contraception to be permitted made constant references to sex, but without allowing the slightest mention of physical desire! Apparently all sexual activity came from an intense need to express love and mirror the Trinity...

I was and am rather a naive creature, but even I, most fortunately, knew better than to think that any man who might care to have sex with me just had to be prompted by an overwhelming desire to 'enfold me with his love.' I cannot think of too many ideas which could make the most innocent of women more vulnerable!

With all the emphasis on fear of paedophilia today, there are common attitudes which would make it seem that a child of three and a teenaged man or woman both are sexless little darlings who won't think about sex unless some wicked adult mentions the topic. (I am inclined to doubt that teenagers are thinking of too much else. It also occurs to me that this was intended by the Creator, or that the human race would have died out the first time Eve had labour pains.)

I remember a devout acquaintance (who married at the age of 19, has been married perhaps thirty years, and is the mother of six) who was outraged that her teenaged children had had exposure, at school, to a book which made some references to foreplay and intercourse. My personal view is that anyone who is trying to live chastely (in this context, those who plan to marry but not have sex beforehand) had damn well better know these details! More than once, I have known teenagers who said that they had not intended to 'go the whole way,' but did not realise how quickly it all can happen (especially with the intensity of sex drive and speed of arousal of the young adult.)

Too often, those encouraging abstinence from sex make little, if any, reference to chastity as a virtue. (I'd love to hear one of the Bible thumpers prepare a sermon about Paul's exhortations against 'porneia' in his epistles... noting correctly that, in each case, Paul presented these in an overall context of avoiding idolatry. It wasn't a teary-eyed means for evos to say, "I was his first!") That improper use of our faculties and drives (of all sorts, not only the sexual) hampers the spiritual life - the love of God and neighbour - is rarely mentioned. The virtue of chastity is a wonderful concept, with both intimacy with God and a healthy respect for our inclinations and their appropriate use as considerations - an idea that one is 'saving' her hymen for her husband both makes her sound like the man's property and implies that, once that part of the anatomy is gone, future behaviour does not matter.

I'll save my writing about chastity as practised in consecrated life for another thread - I daresay evangelicals who are involved with such projects as Silver Rings would condemn permanent chastity (not knowing anything of its ancient Christian origins and value) because so much of their emphasis is on marriage and family that one would think anyone not married was violating God's will.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

A few thoughts about charm

Recently, on an internet forum on which I participate, someone began a thread to discuss 'charm.' I suppose, OED aside, that one of the reasons this is a difficult trait to identify is that it is difficult to define. (It also is a quality which I sadly do not possess. Oh, I indeed am kind, caring, compassionate and the like - and have the scars to prove this. I'm basically a gentle soul. However, various years of having to struggle, on various levels, for my own survival, and my intolerance for anything I find fake or illustrative of ego games, means that I do tend, if politely, to tell people to fuck off now and then.)

Of course, there are wonderful people in this world who would never be described as charming - and Lord knows some of the saints would make me, at my worst, seem about as gutsy as one of the Disney dwarfs. (I can think of a few people whom I esteem highly, and whose faith and its practise are an inspiration to me, of whom I know to stay clear if they approach acting 'charming.') But there is a charm that is born of true courtesy and charity - the genuine article reminds me much of holiness. I believe I'll share an illustration or two here.

Though it's about thirty years since we worked together, I'll always remember a friar with whom I was closely associated in a small, Franciscan parish. Alphonse wasn't charming in the sense of being outgoing, clever, witty, or intelligent, which I'd say are traits one might often associate with the term. He was a very simple man, rather shy, and possessed of absolute sincerity. Sometimes, I had to suppress a giggle - as when we had a discussion group about distractions at prayer, and he admitted (with no twinkle in the eye, but rather a tone of regret) that, whenever he tried to meditate, he kept picturing himself as a tennis champion, with everyone cheering for him at Wimbledon.

Looking back, and this after working with him regularly for several years, I'd say Alphonse had two special gifts - the sort of things which those affecting false charm try to copy for their own benefit. First, I've never known anyone who was so totally, genuinely interested in others. Whether he was listening to a child of three talk about scraping her knee, or a know-it-all parish snob who was indulging in self absorption, or someone with a personal problem, or someone whose main joy in life was her new fridge, or someone who had a direct line to the Holy Spirit and wanted to replace the Sunday readings with "prophecies" (this was the charismatic hey-day, and Catholics were often those most inclined to charis-mania), he not only was sincerely interested but could respond with esteem and compassion.

The interest was not an act. It wasn't the pretended "interest" which makes some burden others with questions, hoping to make them feel important and therefore be persuaded to offer volunteer service. He didn't listen to another's pain and later complain at being bothered. He never used other people's comments (I don't mean just the confidential - but, for example, a trying mini tirade the snob offered at a parish gathering) to win points with others for knowing things, or to mock the speaker later.

Second, Alphonse had an uncanny ability to see the good in others. (My cynical side makes me add that it's most fortunate that he was not among the friars who worked with hardened criminals - he'd have believed Jack the Ripper was seeking holiness, a trap into which I, too, would be likely to fall.) One wouldn't necessarily see it at the time, but one could get over rough spots and actually grow in kindness, virtue, and the like because of the strength of seeing the goodness Alphonse saw in oneself.

I haven't thought of Alphonse much in years, but this thread stimulated the memory. Though he did not have the poetic ways, wit, and passion of Francesco, somehow Alphonse's natural courtesy, simplicity, and delight in making the gospel known (he was in awe of this, not posturing) made me think that he was an illustration of the sort of charm which made Francis of Assisi have such an extraordinary influence.

Now, brace yourself if you're still there... since I am Elizabeth, not Alphonse, I naturally have a word to say about the false charm which I despise.

False charm is based on deceit and manipulation, and comes in many varieties. It just struck me that those who have read "Gone with the Wind" may remember how brilliantly Margaret Mitchell captured this in her depiction of Scarlett O'Hara. Scarlett is in awe of her mother, Ellen, who is generally recognised as kind, selfless, and otherwise a great lady. (Qualities she despises in Melanie.) Scarlett hasn't the slightest interest in actually having any of the traits people admired in Ellen - but she'd love to have the reputation for having these, since it would work to her advantage.

One version of false charm is the 'I'm such a prize, you're lucky if you know or associate with me.' It's the kind of 'charm' that used to be written about in books and magazines aimed at telling women how to catch men. (Or, at any rate, be 'popular,' because one could go with a man one despised, pretending interest, just because he was a means to meet other men.) It was false flattery - pretended obligations to give the impression of being such a catch that one's social calendar was filled years in advance. I would imagine that most men could see through this a mile away, but it must work with a small percentage - who have a sad time ahead if they marry such a woman, because she has no respect for them. She's after something - whether money, prestige, or someone to dominate - but he's never known her because of the 'princess doll' act.

The other 'charm,' which I think I like even less, is of the Dale Carnegie variety. (Years ago, for some project I cannot recall, I had to read that dreadful How to Win Friends and Influence people. I've also had the displeasure of meeting sales executives whose Dale Carnegie training was so obvious it was pathetic. They tack the other person's name on the end of every sentence, and always look for something to compliment... often transparent blarney or, worse, a statement that is insulting. They'll assume, for example, that a female telecom manager is a switchboard operator, and compliment her on being able to dial a number well.) It has nothing whatever to do with genuine concern for others, much less about wanting real friends. No, it's what to say or do that (it is hoped) will fool and flatter people enough to manipulate them into doing something to one's own advantage.

Worst of all is the sweet tongued put downs. It boils down to "I think I am superior to everyone else in every way. They all must admire me, and be eager for my advice. I therefore will manage to put them down with language that allows me to pretend they are overly sensitive or 'taking things personally' if they object."

When one encounters genuine charm, the effect on the soul (as it were) is similar to that of savouring Godiva chocolate or honey on the tongue. False charm makes one wince - rather like swallowing twenty saccharin tablets. Sadly, the false can masquerade as the genuine article. For example, the 'charmer' who is only looking for his own advantage can convince others they are valued, or even loved, and it is painful to learn that this was nothing but an act.

There are days when one must count one's small assets (...Franciscans are used to that on many counts.) :) No, I shall never be charming - but at least I am genuine. I delight in the rare person I meet who has true charm, and thank God that these blessings exist.

Monday, 2 July 2007

King Freud

That title is not quite accurate, but rather a dismal memory struck me today. Before I moved house, two years ago, I had a substantial collection of books, mainly aimed at the clergy and religious communities, which had to do with supposed spirituality and counselling. Sadly, having them no longer at hand, I cannot quote chapter and verse. Yet it continually amazes me, considering that Freud worked on the premise that there was no God (and that his seeing us as motivated by sex and a desire for murder was not tempered with Augustine's allowance for us being in God's image and transformed by grace), that his words were accepted as a fifth gospel in many such books.

This entry is not about Freud - the title was a whim. But I do want to say a word about how 'pop psychology' today, or even techniques which can be useful in the limited application of 12 step programmes, can blind us to reality. If one's mindset is focussed on the latest pop psychology (and how people do love to think they have all the answers), one can 'hear' the stereotypes - blotting out the genuine thoughts, situations, and feelings of the speaker in the process.

Some years ago, I attended a seminar, covering several months, in pastoral care. One exercise, clearly intended to improve listening abilities, had quite another effect. We went through pretending to be people with specific problems, with the other party 'listening' and making comments. The idea was to repeat some element of what the speaker had said, to show one was attentive. It had quite another effect! Since listening was presented as 'pick up on key words, and don't let the other person finish a paragraph before you jump in,' half the time the 'talking back' had little relation to the entire picture. Worse, the fixed ideas one might have could make one 'finish another's sentences,' jumping in to recommend 'solutions' such as joining a charismatic prayer group (when the speaker was referring to his house burning down), going to Weight Watchers (when the one the other judged to be too fat was speaking of a job difficulty), 'making a change' (when the speaker referred to a niece's suicide attempt.)

Of course, though this was an era predating 'self help aisles,' there were many early 'self esteem' infections. This is not a vote against healthy self esteem, of course - our creation and deification are treasures not to be taken lightly. But 'self esteem' in this sense meant that one was sinless, perfection waiting to be discovered, and more. I well remember a godawful but very popular book which insisted that the 'useless emotions' to be discarded were 'guilt and worry.' No one stopped to think that those completely free of both are sociopaths.

Several very dear friends of mine were alcoholics or drug addicts, and found strength in twelve step programmes. I'll go so far as to say that, for some, these programmes were life savers. Nonetheless, certain slogans which addicts find very helpful should not be transferred into universal perspectives.

As one example, my alcoholic friends would have been first to admit (post-AA) that they had tendencies to blame others for every misfortune - and indeed to blame others for their own drinking most of all. For one who is unable to accept responsibility for his own actions, and to deny the effects of his addiction, such ideas as "If there's a problem here, I caused it" can be valuable. Alcoholics of my acquaintance often had blackouts, where they genuinely did not remember a problem arising from a binge, or were incapable of any concept of cause and effect.

This is fine in their case, but highly dangerous for those who are not addicts. There are many things in our lives for which we do not have control - and blaming oneself for everything can be devastating. (I'm the sort who would blame herself if the Arabs attacked the Israelis.)

Not long ago, I was shocked to hear that an old acquaintance of mine, from whom I had not heard in ages, had thought I spoke ill of her to a mutual friend. The latter, whom I'd known longer and probably did not want me to have contact with her because I knew too much of her past, had totally made up a story about what I supposedly said. It wasn't a confidence betrayed, or even words quoted out of context - I'd never said any such thing, and indeed had never known she said this. I was very sorry that C's lies had hurt another and turned her against me -but how could I be responsible for something of which I'd known nothing?

That may seem a silly example, but such cases are universal. We've all had times when, after the fact, we found out that someone took our name in vain, as it were. But I'm only using this small case to show how it is not true that, invariably, 'if there's a problem here, I caused it.'

True listening is a rare gift. We need not to 'finish other's sentences' - or we'll be convinced that is what they said, though it is not!

In one of her autobiographical books, Karen Armstrong provides a fine example of how 'professionals' can be just as deaf as the rest of us. Karen has temporal lobe epilepsy, and the symptoms for this often begin in the early adult years - in Karen's case, during her time in a convent (ages 17-24.) When Karen left her community, and troublesome symptoms continued and increased, she consulted various psychiatrists. I'm sure that all seven of them had at least a vague notion of the symptoms for temporal lobe - had Karen never been a nun, perhaps the first line of diagnosis they'd have pursued would have been neurological. But Karen was boxed at once, because her convent life was outside the norm. She went undiagnosed, with a treatable condition, for years, while shrinks tried to probe what childhood trauma would make her do anything as deviant as enter the religious life. Karen was not even permitted to speak of the convent days, though she wished to do so, because that was supposedly a means to avoid discussing her childhood.

Let us recall that it was by divine design that we have two ears and only one mouth.