Archive for July, 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 July 16th, 2014

Teaching 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 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 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 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 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 July 8th, 2014

ME and Neuromuscular Strain

muscles flexing

Nerves that aren’t elongating properly appear to be causing pain and other symptoms in at least some people with ME/CFS.

Cort Johnson is very good at keeping the community up to date with the latest research into ME/CFS. His latest post explores the work of Dr Peter Rowe who ‘believes something has gone wrong with the nerves that govern a very basic function – movement’.

The breakthrough for him came when he realized that he was able to produce symptoms of pain, fatigue, brain-fog, light-headedness, nausea, sweating and flushing, vision changes, headache, etc. simply by putting pressure on certain parts of the spinal cord or nerves in the body, arms or legs. Conversely, removing the tension in those areas could ease his patient’s fatigue, cognitive problems, light-headedness, nausea, reflux, sweating, and flushing, many types of vision changes, headache, and other symptoms.

The theory behind it makes a lot of sense from my own experience and the experimental data seem convincing. There are even some treatment recommendations. I know that one of the most useful interventions for me has been gentle osteopathy. I have very restricted range of motion in most joints and a regular trip to the osteopath keeps me as fluid as I can get. But sometimes the process is itself exhausting and liable to make me hurt more. This research helps me understand why some stretching is bad and some good. I’ll be sending my osteopath the link.

There is more on Dr Rowe’s work at Solve-CFS.

Add comment July 7th, 2014

‘Us Too it Endears’

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

I just dropped in on Pray As You Go for the first time in a while and noticed a retreat with the poetry of Hopkins. Listening to one of my favourites, ‘Felix Randal’, I was hit by the line:

this seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears

‘Hit’ is perhaps the wrong word. ‘Nudged’ might be better. ‘Us too it endears’ … is that what sickness does? Endear us to God? And is that what God was nudging me to see?

Hopkins says of the once strong farrier Felix that ‘sickness broke him’ but that ‘he mended’ with time and Hopkins tenderness. Hopkins does seen to have been made tender by the encounter. But I find something ambiguous in the poem. If Hopkins is ‘endeared’ by the ‘tears that touched’ his heart what is that last stanza doing extolling the former Felix, ‘powerful amidst peers’, ‘fettling’ that ‘bright and battering sandal’? It doesn’t sound like a lament for lost glory. It sounds like praise and wonder. Is Hopkins moved by ‘seeing the sick’ or ‘all the more boisterous years’. Or is it Hopkins love of ‘dappling’ and contrast that is at play here?

There is something of the play of strength and weakness at work in this poem: the contrast between ‘big-boned and hardy-handsome’ and ‘tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal’. As though ‘the heavenlier heart’ that Felix comes to is more impressive for the impatience and cursing that preceded it.

What is it like reading this poem — one I have long loved — from a place of chronic illness? In a word — disturbing. I am not sure I admire it very much any more! Or, at least, I don’t own it any more. Partly it feels like an ill-fitting template — this is terminal illness being theologised — and that makes a poor pattern for the experience of chronic illness. Part of the experience of being chronically ill is that the double-vision of the poem that Hopkins celebrates is forgotten. Your sickened self is the only one at hand. The memory of being ‘powerful amidst peers’ is a private one for grieving over from time to time. The outsider sees none of that.

A tiny example… people say ‘Hello! How are you?’ and every time I am faced with not knowing how to answer. Leaving aside the way convention operates (I know I am not being asked for a full account) there is the fact that I genuinely do not know what to say. How am I? I remember — barely some days — what full functioning was like for me. I can recall being ‘powerful amidst peers’. I remember having great desires, as Ignatius would say. My high-water mark these days is maybe 30% of that previous experience. So every time I say ‘fine’ I feel I betray that former self, however mildly.

But one of the transitions in being sick that helped me a lot was reaching the point where I decided that I couldn’t wait to be ‘better again’ but that I could go on living my life the way it is given to me, and living as well as possible. And largely I do — I have recalibrated the scale so that the 30% is my new normal — and that’s how I measure ‘how I am’. How am I? Well today the asthma is bothering me after the chest infection and that scares me. The last few days I have been feeling dizzy and nauseous towards evening. My lower back and my neck are hurting more than usual. Otherwise I am OK. I am getting about a bit more, enjoying being in Oxford, a bit sad that there is not much I am capable of ‘fettling’ right now, let alone a ‘bright and battering sandal’. Enjoying hearing the bells of Oxford this morning.

I guess ‘fine’ covers it — but it contains another betrayal — not of my former self but of my present self.

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.

‘Seeing’ and ‘seeing the sick’ are at the heart of Hopkins’ poem but invisibility is part of the burden of chronic illness. Everyone with chronic illness knows the experience of feeling lousy and being told how well we look. It is usually meant well but it can feel alienating, corrosive. Asserting one’s visibility is problematic too. Rightly, the ones around us calibrate their scale by what they see in the medium term. If someone is acutely ill — common cold, broken leg, etc — we see a change, we extend sympathy, give help, we want to know how someone is. But, as Bateson said, it is difference that makes a difference. And it is the lack of difference in chronic illness that makes the illness invisible. When we force the issue of visibility — tell the story of our illness — we run the risk of alienating those around us. Hell, our illness bores us too!

Talking about chronic illness feels transgressive — as if we are allowed into polite healthy society on the condition that we pretend. Even sitting here writing this my internal critic is trying to shut me up — ‘quit whining’ it says.

I am taking comfort in knowing that Hopkins himself grappled with invisibility and lent it eloquence:

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez

Laybrother of the Society of Jesus

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

1 comment July 6th, 2014

‘Planetary Tables and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide’

a page from an ephemeris

the data: a page from an ephemeris

This time the Renaissance Mathematicus digs into the data.

Since it emerged sometime in the middle of the first millennium BCE the principal function of mathematical astronomy was to provide the most accurate possible predictions of the future positions of the main celestial bodies. This information was contained in the form of tables calculated with the help of the mathematical models, which had been derived by the astronomers from the observed behaviour of those bodies, the planets. The earliest Babylonian models were algebraic but were soon replaced by the Greeks with geometrical models based on spheres and circles. To a large extent it did not matter if those models were depictions of reality, what mattered was the accuracy of the prediction that they produced; that is the reliability of the associated tables. The models of mathematical astronomy were judge on the quality of the data they produced and not on whether they were a true reproduction of what was going on in the heavens. This data was used principally for astrology but also for cartography and navigation. Mathematical astronomy was a handmaiden to other disciplines.

Add comment July 6th, 2014

Silence is More Painful for Men than Women

Tesla Coil

electric discharge from a Tesla coil

The title of this article from the Science of Us says it all:
Men Would Rather Give Themselves Electric Shocks Than Sit Alone With Their Thoughts.

Most people don’t think it’s fun to sit alone with nothing to do but think — it’s part of the reason for obsessive phone-checking during idle moments. A new study in Science highlights just how unenjoyable this experience is: in short, very. To the point that some people will choose to shock themselves rather than sit alone with nothing to do for a little while.

Among the participants who said they’d pay to avoid being shocked again (meaning those who found it particularly unpleasant), 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women nonetheless shocked themselves rather than face, without distraction, what is apparently a terrifying hellscape inside their heads. The researchers suggest the gender difference could come down to men having greater sensation-seeking tendencies than women — that is, they get bored more easily.

The article goes on to suggest that mindfulness training can help reduce the unpleasantness of time alone. It is certainly true that people coming to a retreat house can be disturbed at first by the experience of time by themselves without distraction but later come to enjoy it. I wonder if the findings account in part for the greater number of women who go on retreat?

Add comment July 5th, 2014

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