Monday, 22 August 2016

The Sleep of Reason

The novel entitled The Sleep of Reason is the penultimate novel in C P Snow's sequence Strangers and Brothers. It is set around the trial of two young women, living in what we would now call a same-sex relationship, who had kidnapped a young boy from a city play area to a country cottage one weekend and subjected him ill treatment before killing him. The crime appears clinically planned, and the two women are duly found guilty of murder. The central point at issue in the trial is not the events of the crime themselves, but the question of the responsibility of the two women for their actions, as their defence lawyers argue for a diminished responsibility that would mean they were guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.

The question of responsibility for actions, and particularly responsibility for actions of a most evil kind, is therefore a theme of the novel. It particularly reflects back to an earlier novel in C P Snow's sequence, George Passant. I have yet to read that novel, but George would appear to have been the centre of group of young people encouraged to reject all societal limitations and live in a complete freedom from any constraints whatsoever. The two women on trial in The Sleep of Reason were around the edges of a later generation in this group, a group with which Snow's narrator, Lewis Eliot, was associated in his younger days. The narrative of The Sleep of Reason speculates as to whether or not Cora and Kitty would have behaved differently if they had not had the association with George Passant's group, whether that association with a lifestyle lacking in any constraint could have any causal link to their actions against the boy they kidnapped. The insistent answer given is that one could never know one way or the other, though Lewis asks himself whether one of the two might have been the leader of the other.

The novel gains its title from the following passage, towards the end, when the protagonists are reflecting back on the outcome of the trial:
Reason. Why had so much of our time reneged on it? Wasn't that our characteristic folly, treachery or crime?
Reason was very weak as compared with instinct. Instinct was closer to the aboriginal sea out of which we had all climbed. Reason was a precarious structure. But, if we didn't use it to understand instinct, then there was no health in us at all.
Margaret said, she had been brought up among people who believed it was easy to be civilised and rational. She had hated it. It made life too hygienic and too thin. But still, she had come to think even that was better than glorifying unreason.
Put reason to sleep, and all the stronger forces were let loose. We had seen that happen in our own lifetimes. In the world: and close to us. We couldn't get out of knowing, that it meant a chance of hell. [Both at the time of C P Snow's writing and in the setting of the novel, this reference includes the events of World War II.]
Glorifying unreason. Wanting to let the instinctual forces loose. Martin said - anyone who did that, either hadn't much of those forces within himself, or else wanted to use others' for his own purpose. And that was true of private leaders like George as much as public ones.
(Were others thinking, as I did, of those two women? Was it true of one of them?)
To move to a different context, one wonders whether, since the legalisation of marriage between people of the same sex, those who have praised the consequent freedom to "marry the person they love" have really considered the relationship of reason to the life of passions and emotions. How does the readiness of the great and good to use the word "love" in a way that lacks substantial definition compare to a reasoned study of the affective life such as that proposed by the recently produced programme of the Pontifical Council for the Family, for example? Have we, in this context, also put reason to sleep?

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Opening our hearts

New City Magazine is the magazine published by the Focolare movement, and has a United Kingdom edition.

Opening our hearts is the title of a testimony offered by a couple to the part played in their family life by two young people with physical or learning difficulties, and appears in the August/September 2016 issue. It is a very moving read.

As the story of Cara and Mario unfolds, one can see something of the possibilities of the "accompaniment" of which Pope Francis speaks in Amoris Laetitia. There is a journey from a marital situation that is "irregular" towards a marriage in Church, by way of a choice to foster vulnerable young people. One cannot but see also an action of grace in the acceptance into their family of a baby who was otherwise going to be allowed to die. The story of their family also verifies something of the experience of L'Arche, that those who are the carers can receive much from the people for whom they care. The lives of those with physical or learning difficulties are not a waste of time.

Cara and Mario's story provides an example of how grace can still be seen and recognised to be at work in the circumstances of a marriage that the Church might rightly recognise as being "irregular", the idea that is the basis for the accompaniment that Pope Francis suggests.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Eyewitness: WYD Krakow

A number of years ago now I took part in a "fundamental retreat" at the Foyer of Charity at Chateauneuf de Galaure. I took the opportunity to undertake a similar retreat there a second time shortly afterwards. This community is the home from which the Foyers were founded. The charism of the Foyers of Charity is described in English here.

My experience of the Foyers made this account of a participation in the World Youth Day in Krakow particularly attractive. The inspiration of the "fundamental retreat" foreshadows what is now the idea of a "new evangelisation", so it has a particular relevance to World Youth Day.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Pope Benedict and nuclear fission: Pope Francis and the social media

I am unable to resist placing Pope Francis' use of the image of the use of social media at the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2016 alongside Pope Benedict XVI's use  of the image of nuclear fission at the corresponding point of World Youth Day 2005.

First Pope Francis, speaking during a year celebrated as a "Year of Mercy":
We can say that World Youth Day begins today and continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on. The Lord doesn’t want to remain in this beautiful city, or in cherished memories alone.  He wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies, your first years of work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams.  How greatly he desires that you bring all this to him in prayer!  How much he hopes that, in all the “contacts” and “chats” of each day, pride of place be given to the golden thread of prayer!  How much he wants his word to be able to speak to you day after day, so that you can make his Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life!
In asking to come to your house, Jesus calls you, as he did Zacchaeus, by name.  All of us, Jesus calls by name.  Your name is precious to him.  The name “Zacchaeus” would have made people back the think of the remembrance of God.  Trust the memory of God: his memory is not a “hard disk” that “saves” and “archives” all our data, his memory is a heart filled with tender compassion, one that finds joy in “erasing” in us every trace of evil.  May we too now try to imitate the faithful memory of God and treasure the good things we have received in these days.  In silence, let us remember this encounter, let us preserve the memory of the presence of God and his word, and let us listen once more to the voice of Jesus as he calls us by name. 
Pope Benedict spoke during a year dedicated as a "Year of the Eucharist":
By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. I Cor 15: 28).
In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world:  violence is transformed into love, and death into life.
Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word.
To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world.
All other changes remain superficial and cannot save. For this reason we speak of redemption:  what had to happen at the most intimate level has indeed happened, and we can enter into its dynamic. Jesus can distribute his Body, because he truly gives himself.
 Re-reading both homilies fully, one after the other, it is instructive to note the absolute continuity in the messages of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict to the young people of the Church and of the world.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Pope Francis: "sofa" Catholics are called to lace up their boots

There is a very good report on the evening vigil at World Youth Day at the website of he Guardian: Pope Francis holds vigil near Kraków amid tension over refugees. Do read the whole report, as the reference to the tension over refugees forms only a small part of the whole report. The Catholic Herald also carries a report here, that I suggest you read before continuing.

The text of Pope Francis' address to the young people is here (English) and here (Italian - the language of delivery). I do think one needs to read the whole, but I was particularly struck by Pope Francis use of the image of a "sofa":
We have heard three testimonies. Our hearts were touched by their stories, their lives. We have seen how, like the disciples, they experienced similar moments, living through times of great fear, when it seemed like everything was falling apart.....
But in life there is another, even more dangerous, kind of paralysis. .... I like to describe it as the paralysis that comes from confusing happiness with a sofa. In other words, to think that in order to be happy all we need is a good sofa. A sofa that makes us feel comfortable, calm, safe. A sofa like one of those we have nowadays with a built-in massage unit to put us to sleep. A sofa that promises us hours of comfort so we can escape to the world of videogames and spend all kinds of time in front of a computer screen. A sofa that keeps us safe from any kind of pain and fear. A sofa that allows us to stay home without needing to work at, or worry about, anything. “Sofa-happiness”! That is probably the most harmful and insidious form of paralysis, which can cause the greatest harm to young people. And why does this happen Father? Because, little by little, without even realizing it, we start to nod off, to grow drowsy and dull. ...
For many people, that is more convenient than having young people who are alert and searching, trying to respond to God’s dream and to all the restlessness present in the human heart. I ask you: do you want to be young people who nod off, who are drowsy and dull? [No!] Do you want others to decide your future for you? [No!] Do you want to be free? [Yes!] Do you want to be alert? [Yes!] Do you want to work hard for your future? [Yes!] You don’t seem very convinced… Do you want to work hard for your future? [Yes!]....
..... Dear young people, we didn’t come into this work to “vegetate”, to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason: to leave a mark. It is very sad to pass through life without leaving a mark. But when we opt for ease and convenience, for confusing happiness with consumption, then we end up paying a high price indeed: we lose our freedom. We are not free to leave a mark. ....
My friends, Jesus is the Lord of risk, he is the Lord of the eternal “more”. Jesus is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease. Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. To blaze trails that open up new horizons capable of spreading joy, the joy that is born of God’s love and wells up in your hearts with every act of mercy. To take the path of the “craziness” of our God, who teaches us to encounter him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the friend in trouble, the prisoner, the refugee and the migrant, and our neighbours who feel abandoned. To take the path of our God, who encourages us to be politicians, thinkers, social activists. The God who encourages us to devise an economy marked by greater solidarity than our own. In all the settings in which you find yourselves, God’s love invites you bring the Good News, making of your own lives a gift to him and to others. This means being courageous, this means being free!
[It is interesting that the BBC news report that I have just heard on the radio spoke of Pope Francis encouraging young people to become social activists and politicians - but omitted to mention his account of this as a following of Jesus Christ and a practicing of God's love towards others].
The times we live in do not call for young “couch potatoes”, but for young people with shoes, or better, boots laced. The times we live in require only active players on the field, and there is no room for those who sit on the bench. Today’s world demands that you be a protagonist of history because life is always beautiful when we choose to live it fully, when we choose to leave a mark. History today calls us to defend our dignity and not to let others decide our future. No! We must decide our future, you must decide your future! As he did on Pentecost, the Lord wants to work one of the greatest miracles we can experience; he wants to turn your hands, my hands, our hands, into signs of reconciliation, of communion, of creation. He wants your hands to continue building the world of today. And he wants to build that world with you. And what is your response? Yes or no? [Yes!] 
The reference to the "sofa" reminded me of the preface to Hans Urs von Balthasar's study of the witness of martyrdom, published in English with the title The Moment of Christian Witness.  The context may be strictly different than that in which Pope Francis was speaking - an academic/ theological reflection on the nature of martyrdom for a particular debate then occurring in the life of Church rather than a pastoral encouragement to young people to live the Christian life - but perhaps there is not that much difference after all. The 2016 World Youth Day has been overshadowed by the martyrdom of Christian communities in Syria and Iraq (one of the testimonies during the vigil was from a young lady from Aleppo in Syria) and by the martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel in France. So perhaps one can see Pope Francis' call to young people to get themselves up off the sofa and tie their boot laces as a call to that "decisive moment" of von Balthasar, a "decisive moment" that may involve the ultimate witness of the martyr:
If you say to Georges Bernanos, "Come along with me. It's the Ernstfall - the crucial moment in Christian experience", the old grumbler will get up out of his armchair without so much as raising an eyebrow and follow you like a lamb. But if you go to Reinhold Schneider, the author of Winter in Vienna, and say the same thing to him, there is no telling what might happen.  Whether you would finally manage to get any response at all from those who have been "demythologised" and converted to the world, I do not know. They have already explained everything away and are left with a merely symbolic belief in a message that they understand only by analogy. For them, both belief and the message are worth dying for only by analogy, just as they consider their Christianity worth living for only by analogy to something else.
In Krakow, Pope Francis has clearly called young people to live up to the demand of the "decisive moment" that they may encounter in their Christian lives.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Pope Francis in Poland: " ...And once more, so the whole world can hear you! - Mercy!"

The homily that Pope Francis preached at Jasna Gora as here, in English. I think that is rather lovely, with its reference to a "divine thread delicately passing through history" and then a "Marian thread", both being delineated by the words "little", "near" and "real". [One is reminded of Pope Francis homiletic method, from the earliest days of his pontificate, of "three words".]
The transition from before to after Christ means little if it remains a date in the annals of history. May each one of us be able to make an interior passage, a Passover of the heart, towards the divine “style” incarnated by Mary. May we do everything in littleness, and accompany others at close hand, with a simple and open heart.
Pope Francis' words with the young people of World Youth Day can be found here, in English. I was struck by Pope Francis' attribution of the descriptor youthful to the virtue of mercy:
Dear young people, in these days Poland, this noble land, is in a festive mood; in these days Poland wants to be the ever-youthful face of mercy. From this land, with you and all those young people who cannot be present today yet join us through the various communications media, we are going to make this World Youth Day an authentic Jubilee celebration, in this Jubilee of Mercy. ...
Knowing your enthusiasm for mission, I repeat: mercy always has a youthful face! Because a merciful heart is motivated to move beyond its comfort zone. A merciful heart can go out and meet others; it is ready to embrace everyone. A merciful heart is able to be a place of refuge for those who are without a home or have lost their home; it is able to build a home and a family for those forced to emigrate; it knows the meaning of tenderness and compassion. A merciful heart can share its bread with the hungry and welcome refugees and migrants. To say the word “mercy” along with you is to speak of opportunity, future, commitment, trust, openness, hospitality, compassion and dreams. But are you able to dream? [Yes!] When the heart is open and able to dream, there is room for mercy, there is room to caress those who suffer, there is room to draw close to those who have no peace of heart or who do not have the bare necessities to live, or who do not have the most beautiful thing of all: the faith. Mercy. Let us together repeat this word: mercy. All of you! [Mercy!] Again! [Mercy!] And once more, so the whole world can hear you! [Mercy!].