Brain Fog

Thoughts

out of order

Sorry that updates are sparse right now — I am suffering from brain fog, a common symptom of ME. Mine is generally better than this but right now I find it hard to string two sentences together, let alone say what I want to say. This is particularly distressing since I am behind deadline on my article for The Way. The more I try and write the last part of it the more confused it gets.

Add comment Print Version August 17th, 2014

The Galileo Affair: Rough Guides continue

Thoughts

St Robert Bellarmine, SJ

St Robert Bellarmine, SJ

The Renaissance Mathematicus continues his series of Rough Guides on the transition to heliocentricity, this time focusing more directly on the confrontation between Galileo and the Church.

I have been criticised for claiming, in a recent post, that given time the Catholic Church would have come to accept heliocentricity in the seventeenth-century and in fact because Galileo acted unadvisedly he drove the Church to reject and condemn heliocentricity and thus to substantially delaying its acceptance by that organisation. The criticism was that this claim is speculative and thus not history and one critic even said not scientific. Point one, history is not science and is considerably more speculative than science, although, contrary to popular opinion, science is by no means free of speculation. In this case I think a certain amount of speculation is justified and by looking at the available facts on the attitudes of Catholic astronomers, and in particular the Jesuits, during the seventeenth-century both before and after the events of 1615, which will be discussed, it is possible to argue for a Catholic acceptance of heliocentricity, if Galileo and Foscarini had not driven the theologians into a corner causing them to reject it.

As usual he is very entertaining and informative but I have one nit to pick: for someone so against describing anyone as the ‘father of …’ you would think he might not caricature the Jesuits as ‘storm troopers’ of the Counter Reformation.

2 comments Print Version August 14th, 2014

I Love My Kindle

Thoughts

kindle

I do. I have the fairly early generation one with the little keyboard and stuff and it has brought me back over the last few years to reading books.

Without it even paperbacks give me neck strain and cramped thumbs and aching wrists. Not only is the Kindle light in weight but I find it easy on my eyes in a way that reading off a lit computer or tablet screen is not.

What brings on this paean to the little grey wonder? I was reading this morning an article (with a very confusing title–I was thinking of sheep) extolling the Kindle’s evolving design. And it had a very neat graphic of the evolution in action too.

Add comment Print Version August 13th, 2014

Questions to Ask when Decision-Making

Thoughts

blue sky with clouds

assessing the inner weather to make decisions

Margarita Tartakovsky writes at PsychCentral on 4 questions to ask yourself to make good decisions. I don’t know whether to be gratified or dismayed that the 500 year old wisdom of St Ignatius has the subject covered rather more effectively than the answers she reports.

The four questions, courtesy of Alison Thayer, correspond roughly to the Ignatius’ third time of election. She lists them as:

  1. What are my options, and what are the pros and cons of each option?
  2. A year from now, if I decide to do X, what might this look like?
  3. What’s the worst-case outcome?
  4. What would I tell a friend to do?

Ignatius envisages three situations or ‘times’ in which you could be trying to make a decision corresponding to three kinds of internal ‘weather’, each with appropriate ways to move towards a decision. The first time could be characterised as the bolt from the blue: sometimes we just know what choice to make–it feels as though the choice has made itself. Sometimes getting there happens spontaneously and sometimes it involves a deal of coming to balance and inner freedom. Either way, decision-making in this time is more about mopping up: checking that the feeling remains consistent and watching for signs of self-delusion.

The second time  of decision-making corresponds to an internal weather report that might read ‘changeable’. Often when we are faced with a decision we find ourselves quite stirred up: now we think the answer is A and now we are sure it is B… or A. It is not that we are simply uncertain but that the uncertainty sets our mood shifting from sunny to showers and back again. Under these conditions Ignatius says the way to make a good decision is by discernment of spirits. Crudely we can look at those moods themselves and see how they give life or sap it. A lot more could be said here!

The third kind of situation is when the inner barometer reads ‘calm’. Ignatius says when we have ‘full and free use of our natural powers’, when we are not pushed around by various spirits, we can fall back on some simple techniques. Tabulating pros and cons of each of the various options is one such. Others rely on insight and imagination: imagining how life might be if each option in turn were chosen; imagining what rule of thumb you would use to advise a friend; imagining how the decision would look from your deathbed; etc.

The key for Ignatius is to use the right ‘method’ for the right time.

Add comment Print Version August 12th, 2014

Blog Archaeology 6

Thoughts

ark of the covenant?

A ‘replica’ of the ark of the covenant

On this day in 2005 I preached a homily about the Ark of the Covenant and God’s presence in particular places. Of course Indiana Jones gets a look-in too. I like the final image a lot — it still moves me when I remember it.

Readings (Thursday Week 19 Year I): Josh 3:7-17; Matt 18:21—19:1

Indiana Jones is the key. You’ll know all about the Ark of the Covenant if you’re a fan of Indy. And you’ll have a clue why the Israelites are carrying it around today. Not just a box with stones in, the Ark is the Hebrew nuclear power plant – altogether dangerous and altogether amazing. It’ll smite you if approach it wrong or, as here, pile up the waters of the Jordan to left and right so the people can enter the land of promise the way they left Egypt and slavery a generation ago. It is the answer to the promise of presence: God is here; the Living God is with you.

In the film the uncovered Ark is put to evil use with priests and rituals to unlock its secrets and of course there’s smiting and zapping as the box is opened. But that’s where the film misses the mark. This isn’t Noah’s Ark—God doesn’t live inside. The Ark is a throne. The twinned angels on its lid aren’t handles but a perch, a place for the Glory of God to settle: The Mercy Seat.

That was the tragedy and transgression of those molten calves back at Zion—not that they were idols or false gods but that they were rival thrones, rival resting places for God. ‘If Moses can’t handle God up there on the mountain top maybe we can lure him down with these!’

Now you may be forgiven for thinking ‘what a load of rubbish!’ And you’d be right. God isn’t some big budgie to perch in this place and not that. God couldn’t be charmed by our roosting boxes. God is everywhere. But being everywhere has its perils. Everywhere is mighty like nowhere. The omnipresent God gets spread rather thin for our liking. …

Our God does seem to like to perch and rest. Isn’t God sometimes more here than there? Aren’t there places that seem to drip with sacredness: a church, a beach, a forest, a home? And don’t we remember moments as soaked in spirit as a Christmas cake: maybe turning a corner into sunshine, or seeing your baby born; letting a friend go at last, or simply stepping from then to now and knowing you do it un-alone?
A retreat makes a kind of sanctuary for these God’s resting places and where God dwells even for a moment there is power and living presence.

I like to think that, lacking angels’ wings to make a mercy seat, our shoulders will do: that God will get a liking for the rest we offer and wander with us, powerful and present, alighting always and wherever we go.

Add comment Print Version August 11th, 2014

Experiencing God

Thoughts

Helix Nebula (NASA)

The critique of natural theology since Kant has been that God is not an object of possible experience. I think the claim involves a confusion of experience and sensation, and that experience is a more subtle concept that can include God, even apart from mystical or religious experience.

So says James Chastek in a post entitled ‘What is Experience?’ It is an issue that comes up in spiritual direction and in training spiritual directors: How am I supposed to know how God is looking at me?

How is God looking at me?‘ is such a characteristic question of Ignatian spirituality and spiritual direction and indeed it asks a lot of modern people because it so goes against the cultural grain.

Chastek distinguishes between sensation and experience:

It follows that “to experience an object” can either mean to encounter it (a) as a part of the sensation, or (b) as part of the ordering idea. In natural theology, no one encounters God as (a) – and theologians even give many proofs for why this cannot be done. But they insist that God is experienced as (b), as a creator, a guarantor of rationality, a primary agent, etc..

I like what he is doing but my own line would be more to appeal to the imaginative and spiritual senses for an analogy. Chastek’s (b) sounds a little too abstract for spiritual direction. Ignatius expected his ‘exercisers’ to have easy access to an imaginatively mediated encounter with God that would provoke all sorts of feelings and thoughts in them.

When someone in spiritual direction is able to answer the question ‘ how is God looking at you now?’ the answer is often very important to them, often because what they ‘see’ when they ‘look’ at God ‘looking’ at them is a surprise. And not a surprise in the sense of some new bit of information about God — it is more that God is revealing to me something personal — God’s own feelings, desires, heart.

It is that sense of surprise and revelation that cuts through the arguments against experience of God. For all the doubt that an encounter with God is possible all it takes is some patience and then the arguments are trumped by experience.

Add comment Print Version August 10th, 2014

Blog Archaelogy 5

Thoughts

Heavenly Sunlight

Heavenly Sunlight in the Blue Ridge Mountains by ForestWander

This homily was preached at a retreat house Eucharist on this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration, in 2006. It wonders about glory and downward mobility: “about what we think is up or down, high or low, glory or shame, and about which way we will travel, and how, and with whom.”

Readings: Daniel 7:9-14; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Mark 9:2-10

We’ve reached here the highpoint of Jesus ministry. Literally. In recent weeks he’s raised the dead, he’s made a meal for a multitude out of scraps and gleanings, he’s walked on water … and everywhere the crowds are following him in droves. These are his glory days. And here on this mountain top his glory is unwrapped for a moment in light and shadow for us to glimpse what he is and what he will become. Metamorphosis, the Greek calls it. He speaks here as equal—and more—with Moses and Elijah. And the voice that at his baptism had whispered in his ear, ‘Beloved’, now roars it out from the cloud of glory, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him’.

But this is the high point of his ministry and from here on there’s no way but down. And downhill it will go, into opposition and misunderstanding and failure and fear and pain and death. So much for glory.

But it seems God wants us to listen to what we have heard here and understand the glory we have glimpsed. Not as consolation prize but as promise. Somehow God is putting the stamp of approval on all that will unfold. God is saying, downhill isn’t the disaster it seems.

There is glory here and now with shock and awe and special effects but there will be too, all the way through, even when the light is extinguished and we can’t see it all.

We are wrong about glory. This is to teach us that glory isn’t what we thought it was.

‘Whatever happens, listen to him’. Jesus takes up the baton from Moses and Elijah and takes up with it their ministry of liberation, a ministry only ever carried out by bearing the glory of God vulnerably among the world’s violence.

We thought glory was shiny. We were wrong.

There are ironies here. The original feast of the transfiguration was a local affair in Armenia and thereabouts until it was made universal in 1456. Why? To mark a victory over Islam at the Battle of Belgrade 550 years ago today. Glory?

And you can’t remember August 6th without the scouring light and mushroom cloud of Hiroshima 61 years ago today. Glory?

And who knows what violence and victory August 6th will be remembered for this year?

But it’s also about what we remember and what we value in ourselves. About what we think is up or down, high or low, glory or shame, and about which way we will travel, and how, and with whom.

Add comment Print Version August 6th, 2014

Never Such Innocence Again

Thoughts

Kilwinning War Memorial

War Memorial: Kilwinning, Ayrshire

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. There has been no shortage of TV and radio coverage of the war and it’s context and causes but I found myself remembering the argument in ‘The History Boys’ where the lads trump the teacher’s revisionist account with this poem from Philip Larkin.

MCMXIV

Those long uneven lines

Standing as patiently

As if they were stretched outside

The Oval or Villa Park,

The crowns of hats, the sun

On moustached archaic faces

Grinning as if it were all

An August Bank Holiday lark;

 

And the shut shops, the bleached

Established names on the sunblinds,

The farthings and sovereigns,

And dark-clothed children at play

Called after kings and queens,

The tin advertisements

For cocoa and twist, and the pubs

Wide open all day;

 

And the countryside not caring

The place-names all hazed over

With flowering grasses, and fields

Shadowing Domesday lines

Under wheat’s restless silence;

The differently-dressed servants

With tiny rooms in huge houses,

The dust behind limousines;

 

Never such innocence,

Never before or since,

As changed itself to past

Without a word–the men

Leaving the gardens tidy,

The thousands of marriages

Lasting a little while longer:

Never such innocence again.

 

Philip Larkin

Add comment Print Version August 4th, 2014

On Preaching Again: Post-Exertional Malaise

Thoughts

ME symptoms

A chart of ME symptoms including post-exertional malaise

I spoke too soon. Not long after saying that I was doing more or less OK the morning after my return to preaching I began to feel the backlash. They are still here today — the morning after the morning after. Tiredness, fuzzy-headedness, lack of concentration, nausea, aches, generally feeling yucky — like low-grade flu symptoms. This is a relatively mild dose of post-exertional malaise (PEM), possibly the defining symptom of ME or chronic fatigue syndrome.

I always think I’ve gotten away with it when the immediate aftermath of some activity that pushes the envelope slightly isn’t a symptom flare. And then I am disappointed when PEM arrives later.

This seems to me to be the flaw in Graded Exercise Therapy as I was introduced to it (first in the FINE Trial and then in the year-long Liverpool University Hospital treatment programme). Their protocol relied on very slowly increasing exercise activity with the idea that each session would provoke symptoms slightly but that recovery would occur just as rapidly. Each day you are supposed to increase the duration of the exercise by 5%. I found that I could always start gently (10 turns of a stationery bicycle with no resistance) and build up to a certain point over a period of weeks with relatively little push-back but at some point I would always be hit with PEM, often severely, which would make me feel awful. At first the advice was to push through the malaise but that made it worse and worse. Later the advice was to wait for some recovery and then go again even more gently but all that did was postpone the point where the crash happened. At the end of both programmes I was significantly worse off than when I started.

It is interesting to note how Dr Nancy Klimas has implemented a variety of exercise therapy for her patients. It recognises the reality of post-exertional malaise and involves a heart-rate monitor and staying within one’s aerobic threshold to explicitly not provoke symptoms. I have found it much more practical (other factors like stubbed toes aside!). But the ‘exertion’ in PEM is not only physical exercise: standing up to preach does it to me; listening in spiritual direction much over an hour a day; pushing through the brain-fog to write stuff; coping with anything mildly stressful can sometimes do it too. That last one is variable: there was extreme stress living through my mother’s sudden onset of dementia a few months ago without severe PEM; but sometimes an awkward phone call can be enough.

Add comment Print Version August 2nd, 2014

Blog Archaeology 4

Thoughts

Pierre Favre (1506-1546)

St. Pierre Favre, SJ (1506-1546)

Some people go up in the world! When this homily was preached (to the team of spiritual directors at Loyola Hall Retreat House) on this day in 2004 Pierre Favre was merely ‘Blessed’ but last year he was declared a Saint by Pope Francis. Actually, of all Jesuits Pierre is the least likely to relish ‘going up in the world’.

For some extra reading about Favre I recommend this article by a friend of mine Edel McClean.

Readings: Jer 28:1-17; Matt 14:13-21

Here’s an image I like: Paris; Ignatius 38 years old and struggling in studies, sharing a room with Pierre Favre just 23. Pierre wrote later:

“That year Inigo entered the College of Sainte-Barbe and lived in the same room with us, with the intention of following the course in arts. And it was our master who was in charge of this course. … After it had been set that I would teach this holy man, it followed that at first we had a rather casual relationship and then I became very close to him, and finally we led a life in common where the two of us had the same room, the same table, the same purse.”

The other room-mate was Francis Xavier whose exploits turned out to be altogether showier than Favre’s but it is to Favre that we owe the work we do here. Ignatius gave the Exercises to the young Favre and then set him to find others who would benefit from them. One of the people Favre gave them to was a man named Dominic, who gave them to another man who gave them to another man, or to a woman who gave them to another woman.

For all of these centuries, someone has been giving these Exercises in person to another person who has handed them on in turn. We find ourselves a living link in that tradition.

We might not be fabled missionaries like Xavier but we bring our little loaves and few fish to be blessed and broken and shared, trusting that God will take care of the rest.

 

Add comment Print Version August 2nd, 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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