Moon Landing Memories


Apollo 11 print

Not a footprint

Patrick McCray over at Leaping Robot Blog has an interesting post prompted by the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission. (There is a great gallery of photos of the mission at The Atlantic too…)

He quotes his friend Roger Malina

In 2007, I went to Bangalore where we had organized a “Space and Culture” workshop. I was one of the keynote speakers and I gave an enthusiastic talk advocating the work of artists involved in space exploration. At some point, I showed the famous Apollo “footprint” photo. I began to wax eloquent about this iconic photograph and compared it to the drawings in prehistoric caves, Galileo’s drawings of mountains on the moon, or the paintings by Leonardo during the Renaissance.

As I paused for breath, a student in the back of the room raised their hand. I asked for the question. She said quietly: “But sir, that’s not a foot print it’s a boot print.” The whole room held their breath in sudden agreement and, just like that, the whole foundation of my talk shifted.

She was right. No one could deny that this was a boot print not a foot print. But does it matter? Footprint, boot print. Isn’t that just a matter of semantics? No. But why have we almost always described it as a foot print when it’s so obviously NOT?

He goes on to discus what a difference that difference makes. He concludes

Probing more deeply makes us ask whether humans are meant for outer space. We will never be able to walk barefoot on the moon, because the process of human evolution made us fundamentally ill adapted to the conditions beyond the earth. The moon is not just further than the frontier of the earth, it is someplace elsewhere entirely. It is a foreign, hostile place. To go there, you need boots, literally and figuratively. And the deep debates about the future exploration of outer space – people or robots? – are enmeshed in the dialectic of the footprint versus the boot print. There will never be footprints elsewhere in the solar system except on Earth.

I wrote something similar as part of my doctoral dissertation. I’ll post some of that next.

Add comment Print Version July 22nd, 2014

Are the Puzzle Pieces Coming Together Understanding ME?


Cort Johnson at Health Rising reports on the optimistic views of Dr Lucinda Bateman about an emerging understanding of ME/CFS (the video of her talk is embedded above) involving autoimmunity, brain inflammation, and the autonomic nervous system.

Add comment Print Version July 18th, 2014

Blog Archaeology 2


Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fights the forces of evil

As I threatened, I am digging into the past for some homilies that might be worth re-exhibiting. This one is from this day in 1999 and uses one of my favourites, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to reflect on the readings for that Sunday (Year A week 16): Wis 12:13-19; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43. You will have to get to the end to see what it all has to do with the gospel!

It was written for the Sunday mass with the ‘cathedral’ community in Oakland. It also alludes to the shootings at Columbine High School, Littleton which had occurred a few months earlier.

As it happens, before I moved this last time, a friend lent me the full box set of Buffy and I am slowly savouring each episode once again.

Someone famous—whose name of course escapes me at the moment—someone once said that you should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Apart from the problem of not having enough hands to turn over the pages there’s something missing from that advice. No one ever says where in either publication you’re supposed to start.

I’m thinking of making my fortune by developing a personality test based on just that, because you sure can tell a lot about a person based on which page they first turn to in the morning paper. I have a friend who would sit at breakfast joyfully sad each morning reading the New York Times obituaries. All those obscure people, nothing to me, for him cast a light of celebrity and fame that warmed his day. You’d think he was on first-name terms with the famous dead—”oh, he was the leading Broadway choreographer of the 30s.” Many in my all-male household turn first to the sports pages. One guy goes for the op-ed page, another for the local news, yet another for the food section. It is left to me to go first to the pages for which the newspaper was invented: the TV listings!

Part II of my proposed personality test would have you list your top three TV shows. And then, when you’ve got the lies over with, to list your real favourites—cheesy and embarrassing though they may be. Hands up guilty admirers of “Days of Our Lives.” “Xena, Warrior Princess”? “Celebrity Death Match”? “Touched by an Angel”?

Well, this week saw a treat for we “turn-first-to-the-TV-guys.” In the middle of an ocean of re-runs there arose an island of originality—long awaited, unjustly delayed—the season (3) finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! Buffy is undoubtedly the best thing on TV—at least from a theological point of view. OK, the dialogue is as sharp and witty as you’ll find anywhere, the plots handle the serious stuff of life, from running away from home, or loving someone violent, to coming out to family and friends, or the difficult task of getting demon blood out of your new frock.

For those of you ignorant enough to know nothing about Buffy let me fill you in. Buffy Somers lives in Sunnydale, California, which just happens to be at the mouth of Hell, and as such has a higher than usual population of vampires, demons, and other nasties. Though she is still a high school student, Buffy has a vocation, she is The Slayer, the one called from her generation to fight evil. So each week she faces a new threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aided only by her friends, who happen to include a seriously cool werewolf, a brooding hunk of a vampire, and a witch in training. The season finale should have shown in the weeks after the Littleton massacre but was thought to be inappropriate. Now I ask you, just because the student body turns against the town’s mayor on graduation day and in the ensuing bloodbath the school gets blown to pieces. But, hey, the mayor had just turned into an enormous demon, eaten the school principal, and was about to snack on the new graduates.

Now there’s a question: is the high-school violence of Buffy related in any way to the real-world horrors of life? Does one cause the other, or what? But you’ve heard those questions before and are probably tired of them so let’s ask a theological question. The world Buffy lives in has two faces. On the surface it is bright and beautiful—this is Sunnydale, this is California—the lawns are neat, the PTA is active, and what families may lack friendship seems to supply. But when night falls all hell breaks loose: vampires rise for their graves, monsters roam and only Buffy is there to save the world for daylight. Buffy’s world, maybe the world of all young Americans, is like that. It is two-faced, prosperity built over violence. The richest nation in all history, at the peak of its cultural ascendance, but built on a hellmouth. If God made the world and God is all good then how come the world isn’t all good? How come there is poverty and pain and violence and betrayal? How come the rich oppress the poor? How come disease and death claim our lives? Theological questions.

And Buffy seems to offer both a diagnosis and a treatment. Let your eyes be freed from the illusion of ordinariness to see the unnatural enemies ruining our lives. Let your eyes be opened to see the violence on which our civilisation is built and hear your call to fight with your life. And there she is right and she is wrong. Right, because the world is stranger than we care to believe by daylight. Right, because we are called to take sides. Right, because the kingdom of heaven is built here … or nowhere. But wrong too. For Buffy’s world pits good against evil as though they were equals, as though the outcome were in the balance, and neither is true. And wrong because in Buffy’s world the vampire wears a nasty face and can be reduced to dust with a quick thrust from “Mr. Pointy,” as Buffy calls her favourite wooden stake. But in our real world the weeds among the wheat are pretty much hidden and modest. Hell! … half the time they look better than the wheat! Only time will tell them apart. Only the harvest.

And God gives this advice to would-be Buffys. “I know the pain, the violence, the heartache, yes and the sheer evil that hides in the heart. But I am not willing to risk a single good seedling to root out any number of weeds. Not one!” To which I say “stupid!” and God agrees … but adds, “trust me.”

Add comment Print Version July 18th, 2014

Experimental Theology and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy


Richard Beck at Experimental Theology has been posting a series of theological reflections on the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy.

A large part of Goldsworthy’s art, and what he is most notable for, is simply wandering out into the natural world and using natural materials–stones, thorns, leaves, flowers, branches, ice–to create a piece of art. Sometimes the artwork is a structure or sculpture. Often the art is a pattern, a bit of order imposed upon the randomness of nature. For example:

Andy Goldsworthy: rowan leaves with hole

Andy Goldsworthy: rowan leaves with hole

When I encountered Goldsworthy’s work my first thought was this: That is what the Christian life should be like. This artform is the perfect metaphor for how we should move and act in the world.

Goldsworthy’s art is fascinating and I like what Beck does bringing it together with his thoughts on transience in Ecclesiastes.

As a bonus Beck’s posts have some great images of the art. Others can be found very easily. There is also a wonderful 2001 documentary about Goldsworthy available on YouTube showing him at work.


Add comment Print Version July 17th, 2014

‘Comets and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide’


Comet West

Comet West

More from the Renaissance Mathematicus’ ‘Rough Guide’ series:

In the standard mythologised history of astronomy of the Early Modern Period comets are only mentioned once. We get told, in classical hagiographical manner, how Tycho Brahe observed the great comet of 1577 and thus smashed the crystalline spheres of Aristotelian cosmology freeing the way for the modern astronomy. That’s it for comets, their bit part in the drama that is the unfolding of the astronomical revolution is over and done with, don’t call us we’ll call you. The problem with this mythological account is that it vastly over emphasises the role of both Tycho and the 1577 comet in changing the view of the heavens and vastly under rates the role played by comets and their observations in the evolution of the new astronomy in the Early Modern Period. I shall deal with the crystalline spheres and their dissolution in a separate post and for now will follow the trail of the comets as they weave their way through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries changing our perceptions of the heavens and driving the evolution of the new astronomy. I have dealt with various aspects of this story in earlier posts but rather than simple linking I will outline the whole story here.

Add comment Print Version July 16th, 2014

Teaching Spirituality?

Essays |Spirituality

Ignatius, looking up

Ignatius, looking up

I am sitting here fruitlessly trying to write something for The Way. The October issue is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Heythrop College by focusing on the teaching of spirituality. That’s something I have spent a lot of time doing and thinking about but I am struggling to find a way in right now — something specific rather than rambling. So in the good spirit of procrastination (or maybe I am seeking inspiration) I’ve been looking over some of the things I have written for The Way before. The first thing I wrote, ten years ago, is in some sense foundational for me: Looking at God Looking at You. In a way, all I believe about teaching spirituality is built on the insight of Ignatius that all spiritual exercises are best begun with a moment asking how God is actually looking at me, then and there — and the confidence that an answer is to be expected — which says something about God and something about human being.

I suppose I believe that the teaching of spirituality is an experiential affair and that God is the best teacher. One phrase became a sort of mantra for me during my theology studies in Berkeley: how would we do this if we believed God were real? By ‘this’ I mean do theology, do spiritual direction, give the Exercises, teach spirituality, be a Jesuit — anything. And by ‘real’ I mean here, present, available for real interaction, really real.. More than that — initiating, acting, relating, desiring, responding — pick your verb.

There’s a kind of teaching of spirituality that deliberately takes a distanced stance — in theory you could study spirituality in this way as an atheist — and I can see its necessity. But I suppose what interests me is studying spirituality from the inside and teaching from that place. There’s a nest of activities that sort of stack together and influence one another. There’s spiritual accompaniment in all its range from giving the full Exercises to chatting at the bus stop with the central focus on exploring that question ‘how is God here, now, with me?’. That focus imposes a congruence between way one ‘learns’ and the way another ‘teaches’ — because both are listening and looking for the signs of God getting in there first. Half the things I have written for The Way have explored that focus and its relationship to the text and practise of the Spiritual Exercises.

Then there’s another level to the stack: how would we teach spiritual accompaniment if we believed God were real? Again the focus invites a congruence or exposes its lack. We start with inviting trainees to be always looking for God looking at them — and not just notionally but in spiritual exercises, then in demonstrations of spiritual accompaniment, and in observed practice. There is of course some theorising too, some looking at texts, some model-guided thinking — but the core skill we ‘teach’ is that of recognising God looking back when you gaze at God — and sniffing that out when the same thing is going on in others. In our way of seeing things that is the core Ignatian skill too — discernment of spirits.

Discernment of spirits — and getting better at it — also forms the focus of supervision as we see it. There are approaches to supervision that are agnostic about the kind of practice being supervised — therapy, direction, ministry, pastoral care, etc. But I believe in congruence — supervision of spiritual accompaniment best applies the focus of spiritual accompaniment to the practice itself. God doesn’t disappear when we move to a meta-level. We use discernment to bring discernment to the focus and see how God is acting in our accompaniment. And when we teach supervision too, the same congruence imposes itself.

Now, of course, we do not live in a society or culture particularly prone to respecting the possibility or worth of that central question. Indeed that initial paper for The Way was mainly spent exploring four ways that modernity leads us to ‘mind-blindness’ about God and how Ignatius, in this practice, resists each. Ultimately, it is experience that convinces. The spiritual director’s part (or the supervisor’s or the trainer’s) is to make some space — experiential and maybe theoretical — so that they can discover the real God looking back when they look God-ward. In this sense discernment is epistemologically basic, being its own way of ‘knowing’.

Why do I trust this focus myself? For three reasons (like the Spanish Inquisition the number keeps rising!). First, because I had a spiritual director who kept asking me the question and expecting me to be able to answer. At first I thought she was nuts but then surprised myself by being able to grope towards an answer, which she was able to teach me to trust and follow. Secondly by then using my theology studies to understand how what I could experience was possible! Thirdly by trying to articulate both those experiences to a groups of practitioners and trainers and finding it effective and teachable.

I guess I have found something to say, however cursorily. I wonder.

Add comment Print Version July 15th, 2014

Blog Archaeology


water of life

Water of Life: bronze at Chester Cathedral

18 years ago yesterday I was ordained a priest and 18 years ago today presided at my ‘first mass’. I miss not presiding these days and I miss preaching too. So I thought I would do some blog archaeology and reproduce some preaching from the past. The inaugural homily is from that mass of thanksgiving 18 years ago in Loyola Hall chapel. It is an exercise in hope. Eighteen years on, it seems (despite the sombre beginning) to be a tad too unrelentingly sunny but it is honest to that period in my life and, even now in chronic illness, I wouldn’t disavow its sentiments.

I think we all know, in one way or another, what St. Paul means when he talks about being caught in the slavery of decay: we all know, at times, the feeling of being trapped, the sense of the slow downhill slide; we all know how the past can be a prison, the present packed with pain, and the futile future only promising to hold worse. We know the struggle to not go under, to just survive, to just keep on breathing against the whole weight of the world.

All of us have an inkling of that slavery to decay—in our own personalised package—and I only evoke it today by way of contrast, because the readings set before us this afternoon underline powerfully God’s verdict on fear, on decay, and on death.

The message for us is that, just as God once spoke into the chaos and the void and found there light and life, so today God stands with us, sits among us, and says “let there be life.” Let there be new life.

Time and memory—that’s what our readings are about today. Time and memory and the way we are always poised between past and future in a moment of present possibility. Because no matter how we feel ourselves to be prisoner of the past … we have our moments.

There are moments, moments of surprising ease, moments when the powers of our past are balanced—poised—and it seems like the gears of things line up, the forces at work in the world are for a moment in harmony, and change is possible—change and hope.

Seed-like moments—which, if we recognised them, we would hold our breath for fear of hurting them—so delicate do the seem. Moments so balanced that a single grain of seed, here rather than there, might make all the difference. Moments that can shoot and root and bloom from nearly nothing to almost everything.

Maybe this is one of those moments for you—maybe God would like it to be—a moment when anything is possible, when everything could change. If it is such an opportunity then it is not because of this occasion, not because of me, not even because of you, but because of the One who sows these seeds. Because of the Sower, present with us in this moment. Not being careful in his planting, not being cautious in her scattering, but casting great handfuls of seed everywhere in hope.

Always in hope. Never writing off even the most unpromising soil, because maybe, just maybe, this time a seed will grow. So what is it that asks for hope in you today? What part of the past wants to be done with, to be let wither away? What little part of the present wants to sprout and grow and open up into the future?

Gardening has never been my speciality, but one thing I have learned and that’s how hard it is to tell, when something is just beginning to grow, whether you’ve got a flower or a weed— at that age they all look the same. So if we’re wise we wait a while until we know whether we’ve got cabbages or nettles before we start pulling. We are discriminating, yes, but we give everything a chance at life before we start thinning out. If only we took so much care with out inner lives. Most of us, inside, have instituted a scorched earth policy. Nothing new gets a chance to grow. God is waltzing around—prodigal as ever—with all these seeds of possibility. And we give so few of them a chance. We prefer to strangle them at birth rather than take a risk on a different future: on life; on happiness.

Perhaps it’s because the seeds seem such tiny, little things—surprising thoughts, unfamiliar feelings, memories full of life, inklings of hope—maybes and what-ifs.

What if I’m not as ugly as I think? Not as stupid? Not as lazy? Not as much to blame? Maybe that smile was meant for me, maybe someone up there cares for me, wants me to have fun, is yearning for me to laugh, is aching for me to bloom, is dying for me to live.

Maybe the face of God that looks upon me now isn’t scowling, isn’t stern, isn’t condemning. Maybe those eyes are tearing up with my pain, or softening into a smile. Maybe those lips are open to bless, to kiss. Maybe those arms want to embrace, to hold. Just maybe.

What if? What if I didn’t strangle these tender thoughts so quickly, what if I let them grow? What then?

Who knows what then! That’s the point! All creation since the beginning has been yearning, groaning to see what then. To see the revealing of the daughters and sons of God. The angels stand in awe of ‘what then’, all of heaven holds its breath … for a seed to grow.

So there are moments … moments like seeds when our past, as it passes through our present, can become the stuff of dreams and longing—our dreams, certainly, but, first and foremost, God’s. This is a seed-moment for me, a moment of possibility, a moment for dreaming God’s dreams. A little step further into new life. New Life!

Where are yours? There’s got to be some because God scatters them everywhere. And though some miss the soil altogether, and some get scorched, and some get strangled, some—oh some—shoot and root and bloom and ripen. And then a single seed yields a hundredfold. A hundredfold!

Add comment Print Version July 14th, 2014

What is Spiritual Accompaniment?


(I am continuing to rescue some materials from the defunct Loyola Hall site — this is a sketch of the kind of spiritual accompaniment offered in the contemplative mode)

spiral staircase

We define Christian spiritual direction as help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.

William A. Barry, SJ and William J. Connolly, SJ in “The Practice of Spiritual Direction”

Spiritual accompaniment is the help one person gives to another as she or he pays conscious attention to their relationship with God.

Traditionally, this kind of help has been called spiritual direction but at Loyola Hall we more often use the term spiritual accompaniment which helps us indicate something broader and yet something quite specific. Spiritual accompaniment covers a wide range of related activities such as informal spiritual conversation, ongoing spiritual direction, ‘weeks’ of guided prayer in various settings, individually-guided retreats, and giving the Spiritual Exercises in different forms.

In such a broad spectrum there are obviously differences of emphasis and some practices require particular additional skills. Nevertheless, we believe there is a specific art or practice which is present in them all and we call it spiritual accompaniment.

Spiritual accompaniment is a particular kind of listening and helping activity which focuses on a person’s implicit or explicit relationship with God and seeks to nurture it. All of us have experiences which are felt as  ‘spiritual’ — whether they take place washing dishes, climbing mountains, attending church, or in silent prayer — and whether or not they are barely perceptible or earth shaking. Spiritual accompaniment pays attention to these experiences and lets them develop and deepen so that they become part of a continuing dialogue with God.

Add comment Print Version July 13th, 2014

Newtonian Myths


Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Sarah Dry, author of The Newton Papers, writes on the OUP blog: True or False? Ten Myths about Isaac Newton. For example:

9. Newton never laughed.

False, but only just. There are only two specific instances that we know of when the great man laughed. One was when a friend to whom he had lent a volume of Euclid’s Elements asked what the point of it was, ‘upon which Sir Isaac was very merry.’ (The point being that if you have to ask what the point of Euclid is, you have already missed it.) So far, so moderately funny. The second time Newton laughed was during a conversation about his theory that comets inevitably crash into the stars around which they orbit. Newton noted that this applied not just to other stars but to the Sun as well and laughed while remarking to his interlocutor John Conduitt ‘that concerns us more.’

Add comment Print Version July 10th, 2014

Vacations and Chronic Illness


Diillon beach

Dillon beach

Toni Bernhard tells us what it is like to take a vacation while chronically ill.

In fact, the exertion it took to pack for Dillon Beach (food, clothes, medications, bed paraphernalia, such as my collection of pillows), followed by riding in the car and, once there, unpacking everything, left me “cooked,” as we often call it in our household. I spent most of the four days at Dillon Beach trying to recover from the toll that getting there had taken. And, after returning home, my body collapsed for several days, as if it had been doing its best to hold me together for the four days away from home, but couldn’t do it for one more minute.

I’ve had one holiday since my ME set in and that was down to the good offices of a friend who booked the place, packed my stuff, drove me there, did the cooking, took me out and about, watched endless DVDs with me, and gave me space to recover. She made it possible, saw to it that it cost me the lowest outlay of energy and stress, and I still spent a month recovering after that week at the seaside.

Apart from that, until I made the move to Oxford from Loyola Hall, I had only been for one long (over 1/2 hour) car drive — a trip to Glasgow and the Ignatian Spirituality Centre to give a talk to their training course. It was good to do — even including the long, long Sunday being towed back by the AA — but draining as hell.

I keep being asked where I am going for vacation this summer. Vacation is work!

Add comment Print Version July 8th, 2014

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All Things Seen and Unseen?

Rob Marsh, SJ is a Jesuit interested in theology, spirituality, computers and the web. Here you'll find homilies, reflections, essays on theology and spirituality, some thoughts on chronic illness, and the odd bit of code. more...

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