Archive for June, 2014

The Best in History of Science on the Internet

Hevelius and wifeJust launched: Whewell’s Gazette: a weekly digest of all the best of
Internet history of science, technology and medicine. Full of good stuff. Curated by The Renaissance Mathematicus.


Add comment June 29th, 2014

The Differences between Terminal and Chronic Illness

warped clock face

Changes in the passage of time?

D. G. Myers writes a very frank article, The Mercy of Sickness before Death, about some aspects of his experience of end stage metastatic prostate cancer.

You may, for instance, become more conscious of time. What once might have seemed like wastes of time—a solitaire game, a television show you would never have admitted to watching, the idle poking around for useless information—may become unex­pected sources of joy, the low-key celebrations of being alive. The difference is that when you are conscious of choosing how to spend your time, and when you discover that you enjoy your choices, they take on a meaning they could never have had before.

I recommend the article highly. I was struck by the strong differences between the experience of terminal illness and chronic illness — the relationship to time for example.

Add comment June 28th, 2014

The Sacred as Discussed by Roger Scruton

Mona Lisa

The face of the Mona Lisa is more than pigment carefully arranged

Philosophy Bites has an interesting podcast with Roger Scruton discussing his understanding of the sacred. In particular he draws upon our experience of each other to help us grasp a sense of the sacred.

Add comment June 27th, 2014

Silence and Spirituality

Ruth Holgate directing

A still from The Big Silence: Ruth Holgate listening

A few years ago the BBC ran a three-part series, The Big Silence, about a group of only-vaguely-religious people undergoing an individually-guided, Ignatian retreat at St Beuno’s Retreat House in North Wales. Though good viewing in and of itself it was undermined by a rather confused premiss: the programme tried to invite the participants into a discipline of silence in their busy daily lives as though silence was an end in itself. In some spiritualities that might be true but in the Ignatian way silence is only ever a means to an end: an encounter with the God who can be found in all things, silent or noisy. The ‘big silence’ of an Ignatian retreat should never be the focus it was portrayed to be.

So what is the silence of a retreat all about? Silence isn’t an idea that Ignatius used much. The term he used instead was ‘withdrawal’. He thought withdrawal from business and friends and other concerns made a space for God to be experienced clearly. The silence of a retreat house is to permit a temporary withdrawal from distractions.

Ignatian retreat houses like St Beuno’s offer silent retreats, ask visitors to respect the silence of others, serve most meals in silence. Why? Well, once they get a taste for silence, most people who stay there fall in love with it, yet many others never enter their gates at all because of the fear of silence. The BBC series showed both the importance of silence and how it can become a bugbear.

So what is silence for at a place like St Beuno’s? It is so visitors can hear–-can hear their own lives whispering to them and, in that sound, hear the voice of God.

To shift the metaphor, it’s as if we were each pools of slightly murky water: it doesn’t take much to stir up the sediment and lower the visibility. But if you let the pool settle, become still, all the gunk drifts down to the bottom and the water becomes crystal clear. And in that clarity, through that clarity, new visions open up: maybe prosaic glimpses (‘I really need more sleep!’); maybe profound insights (‘God sees everything about me with delight!’); maybe new possibilities (‘what about a different direction in life?’).

What does silence on retreat mean in practice? It is to permit withdrawal from distraction: most straightforwardly not talking unnecessarily and not distracting others by trying to chat with them but it has other implications too. It means letting yourself become more silent inside, pacing yourself, and slowing down. St Beuno’s plays some innocuous music at mealtimes so you don’t get too distracted by eating without conversation. It means turning your mobile phone off so that it doesn’t ring and disturb people. It means you avoid the radio, TV, newspapers, email etc. It means leaving aside the pile of books you’ve brought along for distraction.

None of these practices is meant to be hard and most of them are negotiable with your personal retreat guide. The aim is to let the background ‘noise’ fade to the point where other things can be noticed–like the bark on a tree, the way you feel about life, or the look in God’s ‘eyes’. Without the background silence you can be intrigued by something you encounter while praying with a gospel story but forget it right afterwards. Or you can feel delighted (or sad, or moved, or challenged) by a memory that comes to you only to have it swamped by what someone says to you over the dinner table. The silence helps you stay with the gospel insight and hold the memory long enough to savour them, long enough for God to be found through them.

What takes the place of chatting, phoning, reading, and emailing? Well some time will be given over to praying and some in meeting with your retreat director. The rest might be spent walking, sitting in the garden, dabbling in the art room, listening to relaxing music, dozing, slowing down, doing some exercise, taking a sauna, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. The idea is to find a rhythm that allows you to be attentive, relaxed, and aware.

So, silence isn’t the be-all and end-all of retreat–in fact if it comes to be the focus of things it can be itself an obstacle–indeed silence isn’t desirable for its own sake. Some spiritualities do place an emphasis on silence as way of life but that has never been the Ignatian way. St. Ignatius believed that God could be found in all things–in fact wherever we find ourselves, as much in work or raising kids as in a monastery.

An old saying about the founders of religious orders says ‘Bernard loved the valleys, and Benedict loved the hills, Francis the towns, Ignatius the great cities.’ Ignatian spirituality is at home in the heart of everyday life, finding God there and finding God’s call us to each of us there.

That’s what silence is for–so that time apart can make it easier to find God in the noise and hullabaloo and ordinariness of life–and that is the ultimate measure of the worth of silence. The silence of a retreat isn’t meant to be carried home and squeezed into the busy gaps in life but the one who has, through a time of withdrawal and focus, encountered God can find that same God anywhere, no matter the noise.

Add comment June 26th, 2014

‘Peirce’s argument for form’

Road  sign: falling rocks

Road sign: falling rocks

James Chastek over at Just Thomism has an interesting short post on Peirce’s argument against Nominalism ‘in favor of forms that are both common and existing in things apart from the consideration of mind’.

Chastek illustrates the argument this way:

I can pick up and drop ten rocks and watch them fall each time, and I can flip ten fair coins and watch them land on heads ten times, but I have totally different expectations of what will happen in each case on the eleventh try. I know there is something about rocks that is at work to ensure results and so know what is going to happen, but I know there is nothing at work in the coins. In the first I see a pattern, in the second only a fluke.

The ‘reality’ of form, in a Peircian sense, was important to my doctoral project ‘constructing a cosmology hospitable to spirit’.

Add comment June 23rd, 2014

Cosmology, Evil, Art


looking up at the chandelier in the Rockefeller Centre

The mind a creature is, yet can create,
To nature’s patterns adding higher skill ;

 from ‘Look Home’ by Robert Southwell, SJ

Brandon at Siris has a fascinating reflection, The Subcreation of Ephemeral Good, twining together theodicy, human and divine creativity, and cosmology.

He says he was prompted by two posts I had been mulling over myself, one by James Chastek (Theodicy and the Praise of Matter) and the other by Ed Feser (The Last Enemy).

Add comment June 22nd, 2014

’13 Tips From 13 Years Sick’

a pile of pills


Toni Bernhard over at Turning Straw into Gold has some good advice on living with chronic illness. in her post 13 Tips From 13 Years Sick. For example:

11. Prepare yourself for the possibility that you’ll be chronically ill for the rest of your life.

This may not be the right course for everyone, but I’ve included it because of an experience I had a few months ago. One day, I had a “moment of truth” when I realized that I might be chronically ill for the rest of my life. I’ve tried dozens of treatments; none of them has cleared up the flu-like symptoms that I live with day in and day out. In that moment when I thought, “I might feel like this the rest of my life,” surprisingly, instead of feeling sad and depressed, I felt liberated, as if a great burden had lifted: the burden to get better.

Her post, 5 Tough Choices You Face When Chronically Ill or in Pain, is right on the money too. I know the weight of each of them. For example:

1. Do we keep our health problems quiet or do we talk openly about them? 

The issue of privacy is an ongoing tough choice whenever we communicate with friends and family, whether it be in person, by phone, by email or even text. If we talk about our health problems, some of them may respond judgmentally or even turn away from us. And even those who don’t turn away may change the way they relate to us. We want to be treated as whole people and as adults, but if we share our health struggles with others, we risk being treated like a shadow of our former self or, even worse, as dependent children.

On the other hand, if we keep quiet about our health issues—perhaps even acting “fake healthy” as I’ve been known to do — we risk leading others to misunderstand what we can and cannot do. In addition, by keeping quiet, we’re passing up the possibility of receiving much needed support — both emotional and practical.
If you’re like me, it can be exhausting, both physically and mentally, to continually assess and decide what you will and what you will not share with others about your health.
I find the choice remains tough — something to be renegotiated in every new setting.

Add comment June 21st, 2014

Weird Search Terms

search icon

One of the joys of website statistics is seeing what Google search terms have brought people to your site. Most of the ones leading here are WordPress-plugin-related. A few are to do with Ignatian spirituality or prayer. Today I noticed this one:

magic spell for catching minnows

Indeed a few pages down the Google search for that term is a link to a page with several old homilies of mine including one mentioning Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea books (hence the magic spells) and another referring in passing to wanting to catch more than minnows. Both homilies I am quite proud of.

Now I’ve written this post I guess there will be direct line here!

Add comment June 20th, 2014

Spiritual Exercise, Part II

Fan vault

Fan vault at Corpus Christi College Cambridge

I noted in a previous post that St. Ignatius prefers to talk about spiritual exercises or practices rather than about praying as such. I explored the way new retreatants often are surprised that a retreat can feel like hard work.

Another surprise is in the offing if they come with the expectation that they will be invited to pray the way they usually pray, particularly if the are making the full Spiritual Exercises. Though Ignatius is all for finding a means that works and sticking with it, if a retreat is a time of spiritual exercise you wouldn’t expect to just potter along as normal.

St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, suggests quite a few different ways of praying but he embeds each of them in the same framework. Some people see his approach, with its pattern and structure, as appealing to their personality while others suspect it for the same reason. In truth the structure isn’t the point. What Ignatius is doing is shaping a space for prayer to encourage a particular outcome — an encounter, mediated by imagination, with the living God. The encounter is the aim of Ignatian prayer and the template stands or falls by how it promotes it.

The Ignatian template has a number of things to do ‘before’ the prayer proper and more to do ‘after’. I believe this template has a lot to say about Ignatian spirituality in general and Ignatian spiritual direction in particular and, if you like, you can read an article I wrote for The Way exploring that in some detail. Here I will be more schematic. Here’s the template that shapes the Ignatian ‘hour’ in the Spiritual Exercises:

  1. as you come to the place of prayer pause and consider how God is looking at you
  2. ask God for the gift that everything in this time be directed to God’s ‘service and praise’
  3. recall the gist of the material you are going to spend time with
  4. compose yourself in the space
  5. ask God for what you desire in particular from the exercise
  6. use whatever way of prayer you have selected to engage with the material
  7. speak to God face to face, one friend to another, about what has happened
  8. don’t drift away — bring the exercise to a close in some way

You have to wait till point 6 before you get to ‘praying’ but by the time you get there what will ‘fit’ has quite a definite shape.

The template begins with a simple but powerful move: looking at God who is already looking at you: not just reminding yourself that God is there with you but checking out how God is really looking at you. It involves an act of the imagination: you actually have to look. And when you ‘see’ (or ‘feel’, or ‘sense’, or ‘hear’) you will be moved to some kind of response: you might be delighted, or surprised, or dismayed, or amused, etc. You might have something to say. So the first move of Ignatian spiritual exercise is noticing what God is already doing and responding to that. And notice this practice takes for granted that God is real enough and interested enough to be there in your spiritual exercise waiting for a personal engagement.

Move 2 underlines that by asking God to help you direct all your efforts in what follows towards God. It is about both effort and grace, working at something but aware that what comes can only be given and received.

Move 3 is bringing to mind whatever it is you have previously prepared to pray with. Quite often it will be scripture-related but remember that Ignatius’ own retreatants are unlikely to have had bibles to look at — they had familiar stories and a terse handful of ‘points’ that summarised them. Often it is best, having used the scripture in preparation, to just bring such points into the exercise and recall them rather than picking up your bible.

Move 4 deepens that initial recall and does it imaginatively in the same spirit as move 1. It is about composing yourself and composing the context of the story you have brought with you. I don’t so much mean letting yourself be still: I mean in a way putting yourself together. Sometimes it will be more about getting into the imaginative world of a gospel scene and sometimes it will be more about seeing yourself in the gaze of God with whatever you bring with you. People often baulk at this ‘move’ on the grounds of not ‘having much imaginative’: but we are neither talking about employing creative genius nor about having a Technicolor visual experience — just about ‘noticing’ what memory and imagination put before you with any of your imaginative senses. You can do it spontaneously or by a kind of question and answer that builds up the space: is the road straight or does it wind? is it noisy or quiet? am I feeling eager or reluctant? etc.

When you have put yourself together in the context of your material, move 5 brings you back face to face with God, asking again, this time for what you desire. This is exercise and, as such, it has a point. What are you wanting from this time? What are you working for? And at the same time knowing that you can’t get it except as God’s gift. You have to ask? And sometimes you will find that your desires are conflicted or even unknown to you. You want freedom but you are quite attached to something in particular, perhaps. This move asks only honesty: what do I want, now, as I have prepared myself in this place before the gaze of God? Ask for it, or as close as you can honestly get to it. Or try on the desire to see how it fits.

It is only at this stage in the Ignatian exercise template that you are ready to engage the material you intended to ‘pray’ with. It might have taken a few moments to get here or the best part of your exercise time but when you do get here the ‘space’ you have made for prayer has a very definite shape. Some ‘ways’ of praying fit comfortably (Ignatian imaginative contemplation obviously fits well) and others take some shoehorning (apophatic styles, like centering prayer, feel odd in this kataphatically prepared space). Although often suggested on retreats I am, personally, not sure how well lectio divina fits in this context.

However you engage with the material in move 6, Ignatius, in move 7, wants you to take the experience back to God and a conversation face-to-face, friend to friend. Like move 1 this is not a monologue but a dialogue in which both you and God/Jesus/etc. talk about what happened and what moved you and how your desire was met or not. Sometimes this will be brief and sometimes it will take a lot of the time. In a sense, from move 1, the  exercise has been set up to be conversational — with if anything God taking the initiative.

Move 8 is to finally conclude the exercise in a semi-formal way — get up carefully, or say the Lord’s prayer, or make a sign of the cross, or bow — anything that signals a conclusion and helps you not just drift away.

I’d then suggest a good cup of tea! And of course, as I mentioned in the first post, when you have shifted gears it is worth reviewing the exercise and noting down where you were moved.

Some people love this kind of structure and others hate it but either way the structure isn’t accidental — it does a job of preparing a space to encounter God honestly and it helps maintain the momentum of that encounter.It can be adapted to get the most out of it but it is worth trying it as it is for a while to see if it bears fruit.

Entered into generously it is a great way of developing a personal relationship with God.

Add comment June 20th, 2014

ME and the Immune System

Human T Cell

A T cell, part of the human immune system

Cort Johnson at Simmaron Research writes about an upcoming study of how the immune system is compromised in ME patients.

For thirty or forty years you might be able to easily slough off this bug or that pathogen, but at some point for some reason the stars aligned; you were depleted in just the right way, the pathogen hit and with your immune system genetically predisposed to crack under the pressure – it did – and your entire system faltered.

Simmaron Research’s next pilot study is looking for that immune crack in the dike – the genetic underpinnings of the system collapse that occurred.

It’s the initial part of a projected three-part study that could end with drugs for ME/CFS. Once genetic alterations have been found, they’ll be correlated with immune findings. If that holds up, it’ll  be time to look for drugs to fix the problem, two of which are currently in clinical trials.

Add comment June 18th, 2014

Previous Posts


June 2014
« May   Jul »

Posts by Month