Tuesday, 25 November 2008

For my precious Mirielle

This will be a brief entry - but pet lovers will understand. My precious cat, Mirielle, died yesterday. I may write more of her on another occasion - she was a delightful kitty - but my grief is too intense right now. I've been sobbing for two days.

I am including this entry because those who have lost pets may be interested in this little Candle Ceremony, whether participating on-line or performing it alone. It's a charming meditation.

Yes - I know the super-orthodox amongst you may be astonished both that I love imagery of the Rainbow Bridge (from Norse mythology originally... believe me, I have no desire to pal with the old Norse gods...), and that I'm implying that cats live on in an after-life. No, my friends, I am not denying the unique human dignity we have, or our faculties, etc. per omnia saecula saeculorum. Certainly, we are in God's image in a unique fashion - and Christ took on humanity, not mere animality. Yet all of creation glories in its Creator - and, as Francis of Assisi expressed in his Canticle of the Creatures, a cat glorifies his Creator merely by being a cat! Only we humans fall short of our potential. :)

The images from Asgard have a beauty that sustains me - my beloved cats happy and still loving. (Today would be my parents' wedding anniversary, and it is my deceased friend Tom's birthday - I like to think of Leonora and Mirielle prancing with them.) As well, memories and love endure always.

Pet lovers, do pray for me. It is hard to explain how, even when one has lived alone for years (other than with a cat), it can be frightening to be all alone. Both my cats were darlings who had lengthy last illnesses with rather revolting symptoms, and, with the vet bills I accumulated, I think it is best I not get another cat. But I'll still be looking for Mirielle for months... cats all know how to make themselves invisible, and it will be some time before I fully remember and accept that she isn't going to reappear.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Oh, heavens... not Neanderthal man!

I hope I don't sound too irreverent here - when I laugh at others, I'm not mocking, because I laugh longest and hardest at myself. I have a special passion for reflecting on eschatology. The trouble is that it makes perfect sense to me when I'm at prayer or meditation (and, somehow, I can write essays on the topic), but I don't understand a word. You can imagine the identity crisis - me with my combination of clouds of unknowing and burning a candle before the Infant of Prague (well, it worked for my mother.) I don't have the slightest idea what the Incarnation, resurrection, parousia, creation, or any of it means - though I believe every word of it and have no problem at all with any of those concepts when I'm at prayer.

Recently, I attended a lecture series related to Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope, of which the main topic was eschatology. One woman who attends the presentations, to whom I'll assign the fictional name of Phoebe, seems very full of herself - and I can see that without knowing her personally. I went to the coffee hour last week, for example, and Phoebe was telling a few others about a portrait she'd painted for some organisation. It wasn't on the order of "...and I'm very glad they were pleased - and that I had some inquiries for further work as a result." Oh, no. She must be the hottest artist on the market, because she went on about how everyone just raved, and they were astonished, and that once someone sees her work they all want portraits... I think you already get the picture. I noticed that, at the presentations, Phoebe has a habit, which I think extremely rude, of sort of lowering her head, placing a cupped hand to the forehead, and either shaking her head or silently laughing, as if whatever was read (even if it is Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Richard Hooker, and such other mental midgets) is too stupid to be believed. (I shall never forget her look of scorn when one of Hooker's works mentioned the perpetual virginity of Mary.) When she does respond, she has to refer to having been a journalist.

Well, in the discussion about afterlife and images of same (Tom Wright treats of how Jesus was not speaking of a kingdom 'out there,' or heaven 'up there'), Phoebe of course had to contribute. She first informed all and sundry that she is "very 'into' spatial relationships." (What the connection is there is beyond me. Perhaps because journalists always write of things which happen within time and space? I was puzzled for a moment, because the last time I heard that specific term was when I was involved with construction of a new building, and the building services' guys used it to mean how to fit furnishings into rooms. I'd forgotten how yuppies worry about their "space.") With a certain look of disgust, she was saying she cannot fathom the resurrection - hundreds of millions of people, all different levels, how would we get along, what if she had to (I swear this is a quote) be in the company of cave men?"

Quietly, with an air as if I were just having a random thought, I muttered (audibly) "perhaps we'll learn we are not quite as smart as we believed."

I haven't the slightest grasp of science - about my only understanding of the atom is that I wish it had never been split. Recently, when I sat my final exams, one of my papers for philosophy of religion was about eternal life, so I was steeped in Swinburne (...maybe Phoebe can sit near him), and all sorts of other writers who raised lots of questions that had never entered my mind. I never really thought about maintaining personal identity, reconstituting bodies, objective or subjective existence, and all of those other concepts. I just don't consider that degree of detail. (Belief in the communion of saints leads me to believe that our personal identity will never be obliterated - but I think the restrictions of our "time and space" perception keep God in a box.) Yet I have yet to know of anyone's speculating on whether she'd be disgusted at having to share eternity with the cave man.

The Cappadocians got me hooked on the idea of ever-growing, always more intense, white hot love enduring for eternity. That God cannot be fully grasped is an exciting image for me - we'll somehow ever grow in knowledge of and intimacy with Him, without ever finding that quest ends. Cool! I never stopped to think of the resurrection as the ultimate in over crowding, or of eternity as emptiness, or darkness, or obliteration, or any of the other things which my studies showed enter others' minds.

One priest whom I know is brilliant and has a stunning education, but he never did quite get past his evangelical roots. (I'm not being nasty - neither did Newman - but Father X was sectarian Protestant, which is somewhat more damaging.) He also attended a series on Pope Benedict's "Eschatology" - a superb work which I enjoyed immensely, and just might re-read for Advent. Most of those present just 'didn't get it' - they were asking questions such as 'how do we recognise Anti Christ?' or "when do we know the end times are here?," which of course had nothing whatever to do with Benedict's work. Father X ( whose face sometimes is filled with warmth, but at other times clouds... though, unlike C. S. Lewis, he is very handsome, like 'Jack' he shares the trait of being capable of envisioning Narnia or hell-fire alternately) suddenly, solemnly intoned (somehow, intoned is the only word): "The best part of death is that we won't be able to sin any longer."

Even Augustine, who seems to have been so harried by the unexpected call to episcopacy that he envisioned heaven as where he could rest, wasn't so dour as that. I hope, nonetheless, that the Cappadocians meet me at the pearly gates (yes, I know the Thomists don't envision, per se, a heavenly society - but I do, and I want to speak with Basil and Gregory just as soon as I find out how my parents have been doing...)

Monday, 17 November 2008

Brief thoughts about Elizabeth of Hungary

The link which I provided in the title is to Answers.com - one of many sites with references to Elizabeth which one would find in a Google search. It is not the most detailed, or the most pious, but it contains facts which hagiography would exclude. As Dermot Quinn once aptly noted, "Histories of revelation are seldom very revealing, and histories of holiness are full of holes." I believe that many sincere attempts to honour the saints by sterilising their biographies reduce them to plaster statues. Reading this honest account can inspire another, I believe, because we need reminders that the saints were distinguished by their response, in love - not by having storybook (or horror story!) lives.

Elizabeth of Hungary is my patron - calendars vary on whether her feast day is the 17th or 19th of November, so I wanted to give her a bit of space today. I always loved her for her single minded dedication and her love for the poor - even if (...like myself... though she never lived to be even half my age...) her zeal exceeded her prudence. Wryness tag on: Were my mother alive to read of Elizabeth, her first question would be 'what happened to her children?!' As for me... well, I think it's lucky for Elizabeth that she died at age 24, because I can picture a widowed queen, totally broke, despised and rejected by family... all alone in later years, realising that, for everyone she helped with the riches she dispensed, there were five who'd swindled her....

I remember, as a child, when I first was deeply impressed by one of the most popular stories about Elizabeth. (Incidentally, Elizabeth is my legal name - the name I chose in religion and at Confirmation - but it is my own choice, not my birth name, which you'll never learn here. Elizabeth is a special patron for me - though, in part, because the name means "consecrated to God.") Apparently Elizabeth was a bit secretive about some of her acts of charity, since her husband was loving but inclined to think her excessive (as indeed he might.) In this legend, Elizabeth placed a beggar (in some versions, also a leper) into the royal couple's bed. (As a child, I doubt I fully realised the reasons that the prince would have found that less than appealing. I loved and cared for the homeless for years, and still do, and have done their laundry, and suffice it to say that even I would not care to have one of them have a nap in my bed.) When Ludwig returned, and saw the beggar, in some versions he saw a crucifix, in others the image of Christ Himself between the sheets.

I think God indeed may have been more of a showman during the Middle Ages, when people were more open to the miraculous. Yet I must leave my readers with a pious thought. Perhaps Ludwig did see a crucifix or vision - but there is a more important matter here. If Ludwig indeed saw the beggar himself, but saw that this man, like himself and all of us, was created in God's image, or if he saw Christ in this man's poverty and suffering, that is the greater miracle.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Wanting to invite Father Christmas in for mulled wine

Yes - it is nearly sacrilegious - here is someone totally steeped in liturgical studies (and who sadly will talk on the subject endlessly, especially when I've had a toddy or mulled wine), who is already indulging her Christmas obsession when it is not yet even Advent. Shocking, indeed. But I loathe winter (yes, I know winter is more than a month off as well... but that's one dreadful season that always seems nine months long), and, once the days grow short and I need to sponge and press the heavy coat, I immediately need to dose myself with Christmas cheer of some kind.

This, I am sad to relate, is a difficult task for my generation, who went from being quite 'cool' (...you know I don't mean chilly) in young adulthood, to being the worst crop of frumps since the Puritans. Oh, it isn't that they, like the Puritans, consider Christmas to be wicked - they only think it's 'just for children,' as if the little brats would have the slightest concept of the Incarnation. Still, considering that I emerged from excessive Franciscan austerity c. 1993 (I had so feared compromising poverty that I steered into deprivation for two decades), reclaiming my laughing Mediterranean heritage to the full, I had never expected that, just around that date, those in my age group would emerge as prudish sorts who think that everything that makes one smile is somehow a danger to the children - or that it now would be (at least unofficially) illegal to eat (ah, cholesterol!), drink (anything but water), smoke (yes... the secret is out... I did, and I do, and I am not looking for your 'help' in giving it up), or otherwise indulge in any form of recreation except going to a gym. (Games that once might have taken place in gyms, which then were recreation centres, even cease to be fun when one is wearing a monitor and has to have this on the daily calendar as a 'fitness programme.') Just when I was ready to have fun, everyone I knew settled in for a gloomy stress on "health" (translation: obsession with illness and death, and deadly fear of doing the wrong thing and ending up dead some day... which I'd heard was inevitable in any case...)

Well, back to my Christmas fixation. :) Today, eager for diversion, I re-read a superb book entitled "Dickens' Christmas," by Simon Callow. Though it contains much background about Dickens, it also has a fascinating section which traces Christmas customs right back to the beginning, even to the pagan origins. I'll take a healthy helping of it all: Saturn, Pan, the Sol Invictus (remember him? Constantine had a most fortunate connection there...), boy bishops of the Middle Ages, wassail bowls, pageants with Father Christmas (who was not so sanitised before Christmas became 'only for children'), carols reverent and sly - the lot. Here is a quotation which Roderick Marshall reconstructed from the old Mummers' plays.

Welcome or welcome not
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
Christmas comes but once a year
And when it comes, it brings good cheer.
Roast beef, plum pudding, strong ale, and mince pie.
Who likes that better than I?
I am here to laugh and cheer
And all I ask is a pocketful of money
And a cellar full of beer.
Now I have brought some gallant men with me
That will show you great activity.
Activity of youth, activity of age,
Was never such acting
Shown upon Christian stage...

Yes, puritanical streak crowd, move over. My own focus, of course, is strongly religious - Advent and eschatology, the Incarnation and so forth. (With the current economic Depression, I know that no one has a pocketful of money - but the sort of roast beef I can afford isn't all that bad when it's marinated and served rare.) I don't think we should be sent on 'guilt trips' over enjoying ourselves! I shall admit that I'm not all that partial to beer, but, when I do make my annual purchase of cheap wine to mix with cinnamon and such, I absolutely refuse to beat my breast because I didn't give the money to the poor children.

I love it all - presents, food and drink, decorations, the little tree with its collection of ornaments (which I acquired over 35 years) that is my pride and joy, my Christmas CDs which are everything from medieval to Victorian to rot such as "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" which somehow become irresistible in the shadow of Christmas lights.

My collection of Christmas books is wide, and I have one long out-of-print book (Lord knows how I came by this in the first place) entitled "Merry Christmas, Mr Baxter." George Baxter is a man of substantial means, and 'his' story has value for me only in that it helps me understand others of his ilk whom I meet here and there. His view of Christmas is dismal: not a single religious element, grown children who won't even set a place for their own parents at table because it's too much work now that they grew modern and stopped having servants, no more provision (from his very ample income) for the unfortunate than Scrooge would have made before his ghostly visitors arrived. Yet I could vaguely grasp, without understanding per se, an attitude which somehow explains the "Christmas is for children" crowd a bit.

I could understand George's pining for childhood Christmases if the reason were that his well off children are selfish shits - no hint of that in his thought. No - he has everything he needs and more, and can afford everything he wants, and he sees presents (which I would think of as ways to show love and caring for those whom we love) as a burden. Oh, he has things of which he still dreams: a Jaguar, private plain, country home - but those won't be in his stocking and, though he can afford them, deep down he knows they'd be more a burden than pleasure. But he is nostalgic for the Christmas of childhood because it's the only time in his memory when one could hope for, and receive, a present for which one pines (pun intended, however dreadful.)

I, of course, always was one of the 95% of the population who did not have everything we wanted, nor everything we needed. Mr Baxter appeared in 1954 - today, his counterpart would be a miserable 'old' man (he's in his 50s - but my generation are 'older' than people of 90 used to be), who shrugged off presents with "they should have given the money to charity where at least it did good." (The ones who say this, by the way, are the same ones who resent that poor mothers get free inoculations for their children.) He'd probably be dragging his grandchildren to a homeless shelter on Christmas Day (and I say this though I cooked in them for at least 7 Christmases) - not to make them love the poor, but to make them feel guilty about what they have and fall down in adulation, not of the Saviour, but of their wonderful parents who provide everything.

I wish I could have a Christmas party... but my flat is not 'smoke free,' my food, however modest, not vegetarian - and I can't think of anyone I know who would ride out to zone 4... Not to mention that the Christmas cards, which I send as both a blessing and sharing of joy or gratitude, will be greeted with either 'but we're stopping...' or 'you shouldn't have spent the postage...'

If my readers are surprised by my cynicism (forgetting that is the natural outcome of being a burnt idealist and romantic), be assured that it was reinforced when I did a Google search for Christmas goodies. Among the 'heartening' images with which I was presented were (1) those of Santa Claus urging low fat diets (apparently he is no longer able to be of ample girth, what with the dangers of the obesity epidemic), (2) a children's site, with an FAQ about Santa Claus, responding to the little ones' questions about such matters as whether he was lactose intolerant, (3) a message board, on which disheartened young people (who seemed to think it might be fun to play at being mentally ill... maybe they'll play at having cancer or kidney disease next week) wrote of losing faith in their parents and/or Christianity by learning that the legends about Santa Claus are not literally true (adjective mine - I believe in Santa Claus all the more because certain traits are more valuable when figurative, but then my definition of 'myth' differs from that in the vernacular), (4) television blurbs which show that those with the digital boxes can have such 'great Christmas treats' as new films about dysfunctional families of Santa Claus and about who went into a coma on Christmas Eve.

...I don't think mulled wine is going to be strong enough to get me through this... or even a gin toddy...

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Surveys, statistics, stereotypes and such

Earlier this week, I (uncharacteristically) participated in a telephone survey. It was totally electronic, of the "press one for more, two for less, three for about the same" variety, with no room for comments. A number of the questions had to do with economic situations - so, for example, I was asked if my housing expenses were higher than a year ago, and if I was concerned about my financial situation (I'd like to know who is not), and whether, in the coming month, I expected my outlay for recreation (such as films, theatre, dining out, or gym memberships) to increase, decrease, or remain the same.

Considering that most people I know, at the moment, are finding that the price of necessities such as groceries have doubled or tripled, I'm sure I'm not alone in that it is a rare month that I spend a single penny on what was classed as recreation. I must be a bit too logical, because my answer to the question about that area was "the same.' I cannot, after all, spend less than nothing! Yet it occurred to me later that anyone surveying results could determine that someone whose money situation is worse than a year ago (just like the rest of the world) is not decreasing spending on entertainment.

I'm very cautious about surveys, for various reasons. First off, even when one does have the chance to comment (which one seldom does - I've seen surveys which present the conclusions the compiler wishes regardless of how one answers), lots of people give the "correct" answer rather than the truth. (Witness that sales figures for tabloids are far higher than those for distinguished periodicals, yet few people would admit to reading tabloids.) Second, I've seen surveys for which results totally puzzled me, and which had to be slanted. Third, I'll just give an example of confusion in that, until very recently, figures for 'life expectancy' did not mean that everyone who lived to adulthood died at 34 - the very low figure was based on that infant mortality was high.

Stereotypes worry me the more - because those who believe them will assume what often is far from true. I well remember, in my young adult years, when many of my acquaintances were pursuing jobs in the education of children. I grew up in an era when large families were relatively common, and I doubt that any mother of 8 would have illusions that all children are the same (indeed, she'd know everyone is different from day one), or that everyone acts the same way at 3, 4, or 8. That did not keep those who were disciples of a 'child development' credo from assuming these very general ideas, which often were based on 'averages,' applied universally (or that any child who deviated from the average was somehow damaged.)

I have no flair for mathematics, but have some vestige of common sense. Even assuming that this-or-that was absolutely true for 75% of those surveyed, or aged 8, or of those in a particular classification (and I strongly doubt this is ever true), it would seem wise to recall that the individual 'subject' may be one of that other 25%!

My own concern, of course, is largely pastoral - but it applies to all human relationships. Once one assumes that this-or-that just has to be true of anyone, or of any member of a 'classification' (be it based on income, class, education, citizenship, or who scratches his nose with the left forefinger), one will not see the truth. In fact, if the other explains that the stereotype does not apply, he may well be assumed to be lying, deluded, or bent. Haven't we all known people who finish others' sentences? (They cannot, of course, hear the actual response.) Or who have a textbook model (literally or figuratively) of how someone is supposed to think or feel (even if said other is a member of a very large set, such as 'male' or 'female'), and are convinced that anyone who does not conform to the stereotype is lying, crackers, unenlightened, or insufficiently educated? Or who are so utterly convinced that their doctor, prayer group, reading group, nutritionist, guru, or acupuncturist has the answer to all the problems of the world that they are responding with a recommendation for physical exams when the other speaker mentioned a house fire or job loss?

This hardly applies only to pastoral situations (in fact, it is frequently a trait of those in any way involved in the medical profession, I'm sure with equally hopeless results), but I'd add this word of caution specifically in that realm. I would say, after a lengthy career in church work, that most people I have met genuinely wish to help others. (The trouble is assuming both that the other needs help, what it is with which he needs help, and that he wants it from you.) Assumptions ruin any possibility of communication far more than fostering same.

I'm the least observant of people. It is perfectly possible for me to not notice that someone I've known for twenty years is standing next to me when I'm waiting for the bus. I do have a strong intuitive sense, but it seldom gets out of hand because I both think the eleventh commandment is 'thou shalt mind thine own business,' and am highly unlikely to notice what anyone else does in any case.

My first rule for intuition (beyond not assuming it is a direct communication from the Holy Spirit) is to realise that, even if one does 'pick up on' that another is happy, troubled, or whatever, this in no way means one knows details, or should assume what the others reason for happiness or sadness is. Those more observant than myself, but equally intuitive, need to be all the more careful. They are more likely to shoot five darts, have one hit the target or somewhere in the area, and manage to think they know someone else's entire story and are qualified to advise them - when they may have no notion of what the circumstances are in another's life.

I have no objection to charismatic prayer if one finds that helpful, but, as I've discussed elsewhere, it was not a healthy approach in my own case (though I certainly thought it was at the time... I all but thought I could raise the dead.) I recall its going from very popular to just about dead within a few years. I cannot say why, and am sure there were many reasons. Yet I think, at least in some part and for some participants, disillusionment played a role. Many people I knew in the groups were very excited - seeing the Holy Spirit as inspiring them, bringing others into their lives, giving them insight into others' situations, even thinking they'd witnessed miracles.

Yes - I believe strongly in divine providence, and think that, all the more with hindsight, we can see places in our own lives where it well may have been at work. I think there indeed are times when an insight can be the gift of the Holy Spirit - though usually such are a call to repentance (not necessarily from wickedness, but in a sense of removing bars to divine intimacy) and directed at one's self! I've known many good, devout people with many gifts, but discernment is the rarest gift of all - and those who do possess this gift would be the last to base it on whimsy or stereotypes.