Sunday, 31 March 2013

Love Repaid

Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander died and went to heaven. He's a neurosurgeon, so he not only knows what death look like, but has the scans to prove he had it.

Obviously, he came back again, and wrote 'Proof of Heaven' which is a pretty good read, but in the interests of saving you time and money, I shall tell you what he came back to say:

You are absolutely and unconditionally loved. The other side of the great divide, Love is indeed, all there is.

You have nothing to fear.

You can do nothing wrong.

There's freedom for you!

Two thousand years ago today, Someone Else returned from the dead to say pretty much the same thing.  Sadly, the wonder and the joy of  the message of  the  Christ is almost lost to the world outside the church. Almost.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, March 31, 2013
Easter Sunday

How Does One Really Love God?
Meditation 36 of 52

Ordinary Christianity has emphasized that we should love God. This makes sense, but do we really know how to do that? What I find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved us! That’s what comes through all of their writings, and I do mean all—that God is forever the aggressive lover, God is the protagonist, God is the one who seduces me out of my unworthiness. It’s all about God’s initiative! Then the mystics try desperately to pay back, to offer their lives back to the world, to the poor and rejected, and thus back to God. Love is repaid by love alone.

Mystics are not trying to earn God’s love by doing good things or going to church services. That question is already and profoundly resolved. The mystics’ overwhelming experience is this full body blow of divine embrace, a radical acceptance by God even in their state of fragmentation and poverty. That’s what makes it “amazing” and “grace” (see Romans 11:6).

Adapted from Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate Richard Rohr,
. . . Seeing God in All Things (CD, DVD, MP3)

Friday, 29 March 2013

Ain't I A Woman... ?

One day, long ago, I went to look around a prestigious school in Gloucester after putting in an application for the post of deputy head teacher. The head took me into his office and said, ' Don't waste your time, the governors are looking for a man..' This was the 1990's, gender discrimination was illegal, but such was the power differential  between this guy and me, that he knew he could say such a thing with impunity.

(Barnwood C of E Primary School, Gloucester, for the record.)

I soldiered on.  And when I finally got my headship (' No-one will ever appoint you as their deputy, apply, for headships,' A kindly LEA officer finally explained,  after five years.(!). ) I didn't get bitter, I got a Master's Degree, and when I finally achieved my goal, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I'd made it on my own merits. I do wish though, that the men that were given a head-start at my (and other women's) expense, knew that they hadn't.

For many years, a highlight on the Francis Parental Pride Trail was the annual night out at The High School for Girls, Denmark Road , Prize Giving. (The high point of which was the presentation of the Cup for Netball to a young woman about seven feet tall.) My daughters would receive their prizes, then the guest speaker would give an encouraging homily to the assembly. One speaker quoted the first female mayor of the City of Toronto, who said,

'To get on in the world, a woman has to be twice as good as a man. Fortunately, this isn't difficult.'

How I laughed!

    That man over there say
         a woman needs to be helped into carriages
    and lifted over ditches
         and to have the best place everywhere.
    Nobody ever helped me into carriages
         or over mud puddles
         or gives me a best place...
    And ain't I a woman?
         Look at me
    Look at my arm!
         I have plowed and planted
    and gathered into barns
         and no man could head me...

    And ain't I a woman?
         I could work as much
    and eat as much as a man —
         when I could get to it —
    and bear the lash as well
         and ain't I a woman?

    I have born 13 children
         and seen most all sold into slavery
    and when I cried out a mother's grief
         none but Jesus heard me...

    And ain't I a woman?
         that little man in black there say
    a woman can't have as much rights as a man
         cause Christ wasn't a woman
    Where did your Christ come from?
         From God and a woman!
    Man had nothing to do with him!
         If the first woman God ever made
    was strong enough to turn the world
         upside down, all alone
    together women ought to be able to turn it
         rightside up again.
Copyright © Sojourner Truth, 1852.

The Creation of The World

The first day

   I came to in the dark cold trembling
   while I gathered twigs lit them he came out
   of the cave shivered held his hands over
   the fire and said: Let there be light

 The second day

   I woke at dawn carried water from the river
   to wet the clay ground so the dust wouldn't
   whip his face he came out I poured water into
   his palms he washed his face looked up and
   said: Let's call the roof sky the dryness earth
   and the gathered waters the seas

The third day

  I got up early picked blue red yellow fruit
  piling small seeds between two stones ground
  kneaded roast them he awoke stretched ate the
  bread the sweet fruit said: Let the earth
  bear tender grasses grasses with seeds fruit

The fourth day

  I awoke suddenly swept the yard with a branch
  of leaves soaked the laundry scrubbed the
  pots cleaned the tools he woke as I sharpened
  the scythe rolled over and said: Let heavenly
  bodies light the sky to divide day from night

 The fifth day

  I rode in the morning filled the troughs
  gave the horses hay milked the cows
  sheared the sheep grazed the goats stuffed
  the geese cut nettles for the ducklings
  ground corn for the hens cooked slops for
  the pigs threw the dog a bone poured the cat
  its milk he yawned slowly rubbed the sleep from his
  eyes and said: Let everything multiply and
  grow and cover the earth

The sixth day

  Pains woke me I gave birth to my child cleaned
  swaddled nursed him he leaned over let the
  little hand squeeze his thumb he smiled at
  his likeness and saw that truly all of his creation
  was good

The seventh day

 The baby's crying woke me I quickly changed
  his diapers nursed him he quieted down I
 lit the fire aired the apartment brought
 up the newspaper
 watered the plants dusted quietly
 made breakfast the smell of coffee woke him he turned
 on the radio lit a cigarette and blessed the seventh day

Eva Toth and Laura Schiff( Ain't I a Woman! 1987,   Linthwaite I (Ed)  Peter Bederick Books, NEW YORK)


Wednesday, 27 March 2013

How The Hell...

... Am I supposed to know where north is? I'm not a migratory bird!

'Turn North onto Ladymeade Lane' instructs the Google Map App. Well it was going to be 50/50, and the odds let me down. They do, half the time.

So I was a bit late arriving at Silver Lane which was definitely the right turning for the Cheddar Valley Railway Walk, I checked. The lane became a track, the track a farm yard... No sign nor sight. I enquire of two women nattering near a horse box. It IS down there, but there's nowhere to park, and the track was mostly potholes. I gave up. I can walk anywhere!

Driving out, I'd noticed a sign reading Paxton 13th Century Church, so abandoning Plan B ( Day Trip To Weston -Super-Mare: Too Cold.) I set off down the narrow winding lanes to find the Church. Naturally, I nearly missed it, but after a neat 40 point turn, narrowly avoiding a drainage ditch, I made it.

The church looks depressed. Grey, uncared for, unloved. Stubby tower, which is sinking into the peat, and leaning oddly, though not sufficient to make it famous. It is unremarkable in a very dull way.

The interior features seventeenth century woodwork, 'axe-carved oak,' I read with interest. It looked it. The few memorials in the floor were cracked, the King James Bible was split.... I picked it up, reverently and climbed into the lesser pulpit ( There were two ... . One more of an elevated box, with setting for four. Some Puritan thing, I expect? ). Laying  the Book on the reading ledge, I opened it and read aloud a treatise on love. Then I left the church in peace.

The building stands, and is preserved in it's unkempt state, but The Church has gone.

I recall Phillip Larkin's superb poem, 'Church Going' which says it all for me.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Keeping Active...

Keeping Active

“Mary Ellen, You come back here, you little … ! Don’t let me have to chase after you!” I was in trouble; my mother, who loved me to distraction, only called me ‘Mary Ellen’, when I was in trouble.  I didn’t care. I let the wind carry her protest away, and left her to do as she pleased.

 I recall this as the first day back at home, back on my feet , after a spell in hospital. I was five years old. I didn’t know that the cerebral hemorrhage I suffered, following a fall, had nearly killed me; I didn’t know the long sleep I had enjoyed had been a coma; I didn’t know the reason I limped, was because my left side had suffered paralysis. I only knew that the sun was on my face, there was grass beneath my feet, and I could RUN!

I have slowed down considerably over the years, due, in part, to a love of flowers. It’s not possible to study plants at speed, so now I potter, meander, ramble , and dart about between clumps of greenery with a field guide and a camera. An activity that barely looks like activity, and drives all my walking companions to distraction.

 A chocolate box 1950’s childhood, which mine was, was an endless exploration of the capacity of the juvenile human body to walk, run, climb, wade, swim and swing, in and out of trouble. My mother stopped chasing after me when I was about seven. She opened the doors of our council house at the foot at Robinswood Hill, on the outskirts of the City of Gloucester, and let me go: “Look after Adrian mind! And be home for tea!” My brother Adrian, was twenty months younger than me, and like me , a pirate, an astronaut a cowboy and a smuggler.

I recall in particular, a warm day in early May in 1959. I can pinpoint the time, because late primroses and early bluebells were scenting the woods and hedgerows, and, with Queen Anne’s Lace, in a haphazard bouquet I had picked to take home. By now, Adrian and I had explored ‘The Hill’ from base to summit; a gentle ascent of just over 600 feet. We were investigating a disused reservoir that we had recently discovered. It was hidden in plain sight, next to St Katharine’s Church, Matson, and a stone’s throw from Matson Lane.

 The object of our attention had been abandoned many years ago; it was a tangle of hawthorn, bramble and nettle, so overgrown, that it was only our persistence in conquering the rusting defences, that had led to us finding the water at all. The reservoir seemed huge to us, though it was probably less than thirty feet in diameter. The temptation to sail across it was irresistible; we were, after all, pirates.

 This was the day Adrian nearly drowned. Naturally, we told our parents nothing of this. A tale we decided that he had lived NOT to tell, in case our misadventure lead to us both being permanently grounded.

 It seemed that fate was lending a hand in our aquatic enterprise. An old zinc bath lay half-in, half-out , of the water close to the ‘shore’. It wasn’t easy to free it, but, eventually, we pulled it clear. It must have been filthy, but we were too excited to notice, and probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. Adrian, as pirate chief, took to the water first, and paddled confidently to the middle of the reservoir. At the point furthest from safety, the bath began to sink.

I was nine years old, and really didn’t know how to panic. Neither did Adrian. He paddled faster and faster, out-distancing the incoming water by a few feet, sufficient distance to sink the bath in water shallow enough for him to scramble to safety. For many years afterwards, mother recalled with fondness , the afternoon when her two oldest children squelched up the garden path, a rusting zinc bath oozing mud, and smelling of the ditch, roofing their heads. Two pairs of wellington boots protruded from beneath it, propelling it unsteadily forward. The story the mucky pair told to explain the fact that Adrian was soaked from head to foot, came nowhere close to the truth.

 My turn to take to the water came eight years later, when in the Sixth Form at Ribston Hall High School For Girls. I was offered the opportunity to exchange hockey, which I loathed, for rowing, which I was willing to give a go. A short cycle ride to the canal, eight swift strokes forward, and, freedom!

 My sporting achievements at school , up to September 1968, aspired to modest. I specialised in coming third in events that the House Captain couldn't get anyone else to enter, and I was easily persuaded . In 1965, I streaked away in the 100m hurdles shattering a personal best (never having hurdled before in my life). My proudest moment, however, was achieving 3rd in heaving this huge weight down the field; an activity that, to this day, I have to work hard at remembering if it's called 'shotting the put' or 'putting the shot'. Both work for me.

 In 1967, I missed a place in the School Swimming Gala by not paying full attention during the, 'Someone's got to do it', plea and diving in to swim a length in the wrong stroke. I thought at the time, and still do, that my willingness to take part, so vaunted in British sportmanship, should have been rewarded, at the very least, by an, 'Oh, I say, well done!'. But no, I was disqualified.

 I was not always an ‘also-ran’. Indeed, records show, that in July 1969, I was in the shell that beat Stourport in the final heat of 'The Ladies' Coxed Four' at Gloucester Regatta. I was ‘bow’, that is, position number one; rowing backwards at the front of the boat.

Records LIE. Stourport Ladies beat us by a canvas. (If we were horses, that would be ‘by a nose’.) The referee was either biased or blind. One of the Gloucester Men's Eight compounded the deception when he misdirected The Citizen sports reporter. This was almost certainly deliberately, because the Gloucester ladies' captain had chosen to row for Stourport , and there was, in consequence, a general feeling of miff around the boathouse. I have a photograph mother cut from the newspaper. I am leaning on an oar clutching my ill-gotten gain, a Prinknash Potttery tankard. I cherished it for years, until the day I said, “Where’s the pot I won rowing?” and nobody knew.

 I married Ray Francis, a football fan, from choice, and have never regretted it, but I have had to fake 'sportgasms' on numerous occasions since our first date. March, 1970. We were huddled over a tinny transistor radio in Ray's lodgings in Warrington. The blessed Sunderland were playing against the mighty Liverpool. Sunderland scored, probably, as usual, in the last minute , where all this team's games are won or lost. Ray yelled with excitement and leaned over... Our first kiss!

In April 1971, the year Sunderland was demoted to the Second Division, we married. My sympathy for the demoted endures to this day.

 Some time ago, around about the turn of the Millennium, I decided it would be a good idea for Ray and I to share an interest. I quickly realised that flowers would never be his thing, and I was not going to want to spend time checking out the railways. So footie it had to be. I joined a 'Fantasy Football League' and, with some help from experts, and a little studying of form, I managed to pick a squad that sank without trace within minutes of going online.

There is a rider to this story that proves, beyond doubt, that no experience is ever wasted. I was attending a Head Teachers’ Conference in Oxford in 2001, and happened on a table at dinner with four boy heads and one other girl. The topic soon turned from education to football. To my utter amazement I found myself hogging the conversation: “Oh no! Don't talk to me about Babayaro! He's in my Fantasy League team and he's been; on the bench... , sent off … , fouled …, x number of times, in the past month alone!” With a few judicious open-ended questions, and a lot of tut-tutting, I held my own for twenty minutes! I was SO proud. And the boys! Thrilled! One offered to show me a ’ Chelsea’ programme from the previous Saturday, that he happened to have brought with him, and was sitting on his bedside table. An invitation I politely declined.

To spice up my sports-life, I decided, within a year, to ditch Fantasy Football and enter the real world. I became a highly inactive fan of Newcastle United Football Club, then just demoted to the First Division. As a ‘Teaching Head’, I shared responsibility for a Key Stage Two Class at Pauntley Primary School , ten minutes away from where I live, in Newent. My new-found passion for the beautiful game was a big hit with some of my students. Floyd , ten years old and a fellow ‘Magpies’ fan, was keen to know why I supported Newcastle: “ Because,” I smiled, “ Mr Francis supports Sunderland.” Clever boy, he got it at once.

Sunday, 24 March 2013


Last Tuesday my muse
Packed a spare drape and a string of pearls
In a small, brass-bound, water-tight chest,
And flounced out,- though
Not before delivering a homily:

YOU, she said, pointedly, are a

Lying on the settee
Drinking Tea
Watching tv
e n d l e s s l y
Playing Hearts on your
B l o o d y iPad.

I could see she was upset, so I looked up,
And said, not without sympathy:

Look, I USED to be a poet.

I flung words onto a page and watched them burn.

I slipped between sheets of paper;
I slapped a metaphor and
Tickled a simile but, I ask you,
Where did it get me?

'Precisely!' Hissed the pissed muse.

I ignored the point, but -

I had to smile.

'Slam the door behind you, won't you?' I requested,

A split infinity too late.

Rondavels and Flats

August.  A winter-light,
Blue-bright day.
The first swallows, old friends,
Swoop a greeting over this 
Dislocated stranger.

Mama Alice takes my pale hand 
In her careful brown one, and
We walk.

Here - the ramshackle hen-house.
There - the piecemeal cattle-shed.
Past the patch where the
Stiff-dead mealie stalks
Lurch in drunken ranks.
Round the rondavel, where the ancestors live;
Through the flat houses 
Where the occasional grandchildren
Come, and stay, and go.

The wary dogs wag their uncertain tails
And the geese, the BLOODY GEESE,
Honk in utter disbelief.

But Mama holds me in her great black embrace,
Sweeps a hand to the horizon and says:

'Wherever you are, 
Anywhere in the world,
THIS is your home.'

Love comes in the most unexpected places, and often takes us utterly by surprise.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Not the Budget Speech...

What is it about African cockerels? They crow all night. And should they stop for a moment, the dogs take over. Please ... Don't get me started on the geese... .

August 2002. I am fifty-one years old, and this is the greatest adventure of my life. I have a very impressive title. I am a 'Global Teacher' I have a Millennium Award that has trained me and let me loose on Lower Kroza Junior Secondary School, 50 k from Mtata in The Eastern Cape of the Republic of South Africa. My role is to enable the Senior Management Team to implement their School Development Plan. ' the mundane failure of this grand enterprise, I will draw a veil over.

I am the first Westerner to stay in the village. I am aware of a deep sense of privilege. My host, Mrs Nomtombani Molimbile is a seventy year old Xhosa farmer. She is also ,the widow of an Archdeacon in the Anglican Church. Her home, a traditional kraal with cattle, sheep, poultry and a mealie patch, also boasts a rondavel and a five-bedroomed bungalow that wouldn't have looked out of place in Weybridge. This was NOT what I was given to expect during the year-long induction phase. I was prepared for a mud bricked roundhouse with a thatched roof - like every other house in the village.

I quickly adjusted.

That's the background. My aim in this post is to describe a typical day from a very untypical experience.

Mama ( a title of respect) would knock on my bedroom door at 6 am. She would leave in the 'bathroom' opposite two plastic buckets, one of hot water, one of cold, that had been heated on the propane gas heater in her own 'flat' elsewhere in the kraal.

I became adept at performing all my ablutions on four buckets of water a day. In the evening, I would fill the cartwheel-sized bowl that served as a bath, with a few inches of hot water and wash my hair. Then I would sit in the bowl and wash my body. In went more hot water, and some 'Surf' washing powder and my clothes, which I would leave overnight to soak.

The following morning, I would wring out my clothes, pour the dirty water into the 'toilet' bucket, then have my morning wash. Then I'd rinse out my clothes, ready to hang out in Mama's garden, out of reach of the goats.

Breakfast: 'weetbix' and Xhosa tea, which is like English tea, only made with hot milk.

At 0730 Mr Landilesa Mximwa, the school principal would drive into the kraal in his shiny new 'Backie' and sound his horn. I was always ready, and I always sat in the cab with him. Mrs Mda and Mrs Ngai, would be accommodated in the flatbed behind us.

The drive down the rutted mud road to the school was taken slowly for the sake of the ladies in the back.

The school bell rang at 0745, and the 300 or so learners gathered in the compound encircled by the three mud and corrugated iron classroom blocks.

The memory of what follows still has the power to bring tears to my eyes. At a signal from the staff member responsible for assembly that day, the children would burst into song. I cannot describe the beauty of the harmonies, the power of the spiritual songs and prayers that sprang spontaneously from the throats of these talented youngsters.

After the worship, the learners would be subjected to a daily harangue, which is a kind way to describe the exhortation, in English, which I am glad to say, few of the young people would fully understand.

Lessons began around 0800 and followed a similar pattern in every class. The teacher would chant a fact, and the learners would repeat it over and again, until it was committed to memory.

Older children had pages and pages of information to copy into exercise books from the blackboard. The teachers were bored, the children were bored - the situation was dire.

Around 1130, school would stop for lunch. A lady from the village would come in to butter bread that would be served to all the children with jam. This, known as , 'the Mandela bread' was the main meal of the day for some of these children.

Poverty was evident in the broken shoes ( or absence of them) the cheap, I'll-fitting uniform that was often too large, or small, and full of holes.

The school was struggling to deliver a highly ambitious curriculum with virtually no resources.

I had to leave one class in tears when I saw six-year olds on tables of eight, given the task of drawing a house. They had one crayon between them that passed from child to child.

The afternoons seemed to hardly get going at all. The school was supposed to close at 1400, but most days everyone had drifted off by 1330.

At 1400 I would run a staff workshop - on identifying and helping children with learning difficulties, on sexual health, on teaching English... Most importantly from my perspective, on training teachers to teach interesting lessons, and to treat their learners with kindness and respect.

I would 'foot' home about 1700, to a dinner of chicken, potatoes, rice, butternut squash, cabbage, carrots and gravy. The same every day. I asked Mama not to go to the trouble, but she pointed out that I was not the proper shape for a grown woman, and she saw it as her duty to do something about it. The agency that placed me in the village paid for my keep.

After dinner, I would sit, wrapped in a blanket (it was winter, and the evenings were cold) watching American soap-operas which were a favourite with the adults on the Kraal. Surreal. The kraal did not have running water, but it had mains electricity and a satellite dish...

I was in bed by 2100. Trying to snatch a few hours sleep before the cockerels, dogs and geese conspired to keep me awake for another night under the fabulous African sky.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Marriage a la Mode

This is my friend  Pietro's letter, published in The Tablet (24 March 2012).  Following the resignation of Cardinal O'Brian, I thought it pertinent to reproduce it. Here is sense, charity and compassion, expressed for more eloquently than I could have put it myself:

Marriage a la Mode

I am a heterosexual, retired psychiatrist and a Catholic. During my years of pracising, I never ceased to be shocked when I heard homosexuals' understanding of their natural longing for physical and emotional connection with a partner described as sinful . Frequently this led to the denial of their real nature and their self-acceptance, often resulting in severe depression and suicide attempts.  I also observed a conspiracy of silence that some churches implemented, which produced a sense of isolation and very low self-esteem.
  As I understand it, marriage is about a relationship of love, commitment and grace, not only a vehicle for procreation, as the Catholic Church emphasises. Lifelong commitment provides the best context for the flourishing of healthy relationships and human growth. and if this is not the locus of Christ at work in our world, then what is? Surely it is a means for providing the strength/grace to live out that commitment.
   in my opinion, what is being expressed comes from ignorance (homosexuality occurs in the natural world) and arrogance (people who play God by purporting to have answers for the problems of other human beings). If all the Catholic bishops and clergy who are homosexual were to "come out", might it not help the Catholic Church to be a little more compassionate?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Calling Women From The Desert

I do not consider myself a feminist. I pootle along, watching, listening, growing in grace and truth, I hope,  as I age. I regard being a woman as a huge plus, subjected as I am (or was?) to the softer tyranny of oestrogen, observing with a smile of amusement,  the Alpha males and their priests make a dog's breakfast of running the world. This, I imagine to be the expression on the face of La Gioconda which has bewitched, befuddled and beguiled her admirers since the sixteenth century. But today, I am not amused, I am deeply, deeply distressed.

There is, with very little publicity that I can discover, a declaration being prepared in the United Nations that sets out to curb violence against women. That the Egyptian Brotherhood should oppose it comes as no surprise. I hear they deplore the fact that should this resolution be accepted, women will be able to travel,  seek medical advice, or use contraception without their husband's permission. (How those brave women who risked their lives to demonstrate against Mubarak have been betrayed!)

The ignorant posturing  of such a group doesn't surprise me. I am shocked rather, by the opposition of The Vatican. Is it THAT important to maintain the dubious rights of a male hierarchy to keep an iron grip of power over the Catholic laity - the giving up of which would hold out the hope of transforming the church from the shambles it is today, to a modern and more relevant institution?

Hold in the balance the 'rights' of  the Vatican and the 'wrongs' of the 66 MILLION ((UN figure) girls who are living wretched lives. Some simply grossly underprivileged. Too many mutilated, beaten, raped, starved, trafficked, tortured, exchanged as chattels and forced into marriages they have no say in, to be subjected to child-birth they are too young to survive. Ask yourself, 'Where would the carpenter of Nazareth stand?'

Today, I am ashamed to be a Roman Catholic.

For the rest, I include Fr Richard's Meditation for today, which once again seems uncannily timely.

The Feminine Face of God

Meditation 20 of 52

All this “women-stuff” is not only important; it is half of conversion, half of salvation, half of wholeness, half of God’s work of art. I believe this mystery is imaged in the woman of the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse: “pregnant, and in labor, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth . . . and finally escaping into the desert until her time” (Revelation 12:1-6).
Could this be the time? The world is tired of Pentagons and pyramids, prelates and princes, empires and corporations that only abort God’s child. This women-stuff is very important, and it has always been important, more than this white male priest ever imagined or desired! My God was too small and too male in the first half of my life. It kept me from the deeper mystical path.
Much that many feminists have said is very prophetic and necessary for the Church and the world. It is time for the woman to come out of her desert refuge and for the men to welcome her. As we see in the churches today. This is still quite difficult if you have been an “alpha male” all of your life. No surprise that Jesus came “meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29) to undo the male addiction to power and performance. Mary is the standing archetype of how the gift of God is received. One almost wonders if the Roman and Orthodox churches do not “worship” Mary to avoid actually following her on her oh-so-natural and simple path.

Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 279, Day 290

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Habemus Papam

We Francises welcome the newest member of our clan with certain reservations.

When I was a catechumen, I learned some beautiful and life-enhancing truths. I am thankful for Catholic teaching on the primacy of Love as the true expression of God, on social justice, on the power of the sacraments, and for an interpretation of the Scriptures that didn't force me to believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast.

Thank You Mother Church. When I needed you, you were there. These gifts will bless me for the rest  of my life.

There's a 'but' coming isn't there? There has to be.

Yes, and it's a big one.

The Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman famously said,

“I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

This is quite shocking in a way, especially that,  since the nineteenth century, the Pope has taken upon himself the mantle of infallibility, where faith and morals are concerned. This, of course, to maintain church order, at least as much as to stifle debate. Famously, Pope John-Paul II  forbade that there be any more discussion on the ordination of women to the priesthood - as if THAT worked.

Back to the Blessed John Henry Newman.  The Church has a neat little side-step around this rather awkward spark of individuality ... You will be told, if you ask, that, naturally, your conscience must come first - but it must be an INFORMED conscience.  You can see where this is going can't you? How do you think you inform your conscience? By following the teachings of the church, of course! Gotcha!

This HAS to be nonsense. There are other, legitimate, ways of informing your conscience that have nothing to do with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  I am thinking of three.

Firstly, direct experience. Woman afraid to have, and unable to enjoy, sex because they have no wish to become pregnant, homosexual men and women who are persecuted because of their sexuality, children born into dire poverty because their parents cannot afford to feed them... . To enforce a moral code that brings these evils into being, you have to break the first rule - that God is love. And yes, I have confronted all three in my rather limited experience, you will be able to add your own.

Secondly, the application of science. To return to the issue of sexuality, because this is where the church really marginalises itself, and let's it's people down: I  know, because I have read the literature, that there are over two hundred different combinations of chromosomes that determine gender. So the strict male/female dichotomy is incorrect, and to carry on as if it were not, is, frankly, unethical.  It is not true, either, to say that homosexual behaviour is unnatural. Watch most things with David Attenborough in them, and you will be convinced of this, even if you weren't before.

What IS unnatural, is to try to force a way of life on others, that is not natural TO THEM.

Thirdly, look at the history of the Church and see practices that were once commonplace, therefore considered, one supposes, correct, or ethical, that have now been abandoned - I can think of four immediately, the castration of boys to sing in the great renaissance churches, the excesses of the Inquisition that burned man and women alive ' for the love of Christ', and more recently, the punishment-led regimes in Catholic schools that aimed to ' beat the devil out of the boy' and the virtual imprisonment of unmarried mothers in the infamous 'Magdalene  Laundries' in Ireland.

Church, you cannot say to intelligent men and women, ' Oh yes, well we got things wrong THEN, but you have to believe everything we tell you is true NOW.' We are not children, even if children are to be treated so, we WILL exercise our consciences, we WILL determine what is and isn't compassionate expression of God's will for his creation.

Surely this is the The Holy Spirit speaking through His people? The Indwelling One is not silent.

Listen to us Papa Francis. Hear our prayer for compassion, for sanity, for  a voice in matters that intimately concern us.

Recognise the edicts of the church that lay burdens on our backs that are too heavy for us to bear- of sin, of guilt, of shame - Lighten them we pray.

Or we will leave.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Quiet Rage

Usually, I am fairly upbeat. I have an amazingly contented life - I really do. Enough of everything, a fantastic family, and some wonderful friends -  so much to feel good about.

Today, I am allowing myself the luxury of  reflection, and I am rather disappointed with myself.

It started with a spat with a friend over our differing political perspectives. I climbed on my high horse and ... Well, it hardly matters. In a measured response, my friend suggested that we, both moderates, have failed as citizens by leaving the arena and allowing bigotry to dominate public debate.

Yes, but. I don't want to. I read the views of extremists with distaste. Furthermore, I can see that any attempt to put forward a moderate opinion is greeted with, at the very least, derision. Politicians don't help, the polarisation of  debate makes our Parliament painful to watch.

We know this, it hardly needs reiteration. The question is ... Is there anything I can do about it?

Three days later...

One of my favourite manoeuvres to write my way out of a block is to write a list:

(With bullet points)

# I joined a comment site in order to inject a little reason. (Guardian cif 'Belief') In three years I commented three times. I was trying to join in a game with the big boys. I got knocked over and I went home. Moderation just isn't as sexy as rage.

# I try to do good works. Sometimes I succeed. At least in making myself feel good.

# I go to church, and say some pretty hot prayers. And I meditate, at least once a month, whether I need to or....

# I try to be helpful, I aim to be kind, I place a premium on compassion and sometimes I get away with fooling people into thinking that this is WHO I REALLY AM.

WOW! That got me over the hump. But the bottom line is, 'who I really am ' is complacent, self-serving
and cowardly. I'm not worried by that, particularly. I get by. I'm probably too old to change... :)

'So,' I tell myself, 'Let's have a look at what you can do to be a bit more authentic.'

(Talking to myself reminds me that I exist. Sometimes, this is important, I find.)

Pause for thought,,,, 


Monday, 4 March 2013

Having An Off Day

I am full of myself today.

That's  the thing. I have been reading three texts concurrently. The New Scientist, on 'Self' ( 'Where is it, if it's there at all?' ) Fr Richard Rohr on 'The Search for Our True Self' ('It's there, you just have know where to look for it') and, for light relief, 'The Tablet' on the Poping Drama now being played out at the Vatican. ('Who..?' No, it's no good, the machinations of Papal politics defy summation.)

(Pause for a swig of tea, which, because that paragraph took so long to construct, has now gone cold.)

I am thinking hard about myself and what that means. I was asked to leave the philosophy class when at college, so I must apologise for my ignorance about a subject that's been chewed over for millennia, on occasions with pebbles in the mouth, so I believe, but I shall plough on as if ignorance is  bliss.

The NS report begins:

'As you wake up each morning, hazy and disoriented, you gradually become aware of the rustling of the sheets, sense their texture and squint at the light. One aspect of your self has reassembled: the first-person observer of reality, inhabiting a human body.

As wakefulness grows, so does your sense of having a past, a personality and motivations. Your self is complete, as both witness of the world and bearer of your consciousness and identity. You.

This intuitive sense of self is an effortless and fundamental human experience. But it is nothing more than an elaborate illusion. Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel. Some thinkers even go as far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self. '

Due to the fortuitous consequence of being ejected from the philosophy class, I am not burdened with being a 'thinker' , so I cannot claim, ' that there is no such thing as the  self.'

I have a heavy cold that has settled on my chest and has reduced me to a fractious and demanding individual not fit for company. 'This is it!' I  unthink to my self, 'If I am NOT, then who the hell has this bloody cold?