Saturday, 15 November 2014

St Albertus Magnus

Today is the feast of St Albert the Great.

Shortly before I was received into the Church I was asked to nominate my patron saint. After a lot of searching, I stumbled on the story of a truly remarkable man of God.

One of the first things I read about him was the claim that he had read almost every book printed on every academic subject. He was a Master of every known discipline at the time. His collected works (those that we still have) include masterful commentaries on logic, theology, astronomy, astrology, geography, justice, law, zoology, physiology, mineralogy, botany, relationships and love, and on his strongest and most passionate discipline, philosophy.

Centuries ahead of his time, he is the man who claimed that "the aim of [science] is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature." Some of his commentaries in botany are still the most important in that field, over seven hundred years later!

Despite his magnificent achievements, and his service as a competent provincial in his order and later as a bishop, he is best remembered for his careful nurture and promotion of one of his finest students. When some of his students were teasing a quiet member of his class he declared "You call him the dumb ox, but ... one day he will produce such a bellowing it will be heard throughout the world!" That student was St Thomas Aquinas.

I chose St Albert for my patron for his inspirational search for understanding, for the fact that his immense learning enhanced his faith in God, for the fact that he never allowed his great learning to treat anyone as less than an equal, and most of all, that he was humble enough to see greatness in one of his quietest students, and he devoted the latter stages of his life to defending that student's brilliant work.

Once I had chosen St Albert, I was told that his feast falls today, the 15th of November, which is my own birthday.

Our dear son Albert is, of course, named for him.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Joy and hope

What a joy and a privilege it was to witness the installation of the new Archbishop of Sydney!

It was a joy to see so many good people gathered to celebrate the occasion. In fact the only negative of the day was not having the time to chase them all down for a decent chat. 

In the midst of this joy, however, spare a thought, and a prayer, for our new Archbishop who sits down in his new office for the first time today and begins the work which will probably take up the next twenty years of his life. It is hard for us to imagine the weight of facing such a huge task in these first days, so our family will be praying a Novena for the new Archbishop. We will be praying specifically that God grant him the supernatural graces of courage and hope at this time. Please join us in this prayer, or your own prayers, over the next nine days.

We will be praying the prayer believed to be penned by St Patrick in the fifth century, commonly known as "St Patrick's Breastplate." 

I arise today 
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,Through belief in the Threeness,Through confession of the Onenessof the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgement of doom.
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,

I arise today 
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

I arise today with
God's strength to pilot me,
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.

I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation

Monday, 10 November 2014

Searching for meaning in a post religion world

I have a confession to make. I find atheists fascinating.

I do not mean the atheists who spend their life ranting about the evils of religion, who seem desperate to go beyond justifying their own lack of belief to demanding public ridicule and persecution of anyone proposing a religious ideal, those are quite predictable and boring. I am referring to a different kind of atheism.

Now that Atheism has become the norm, particularly among people who think of themselves as 'modern thinkers', we are seeing more and more of these thinkers openly pondering about the meaning of life in a world without religion. These people do not engage with the question of the existence of God, they simply assume it is ridiculous and absurd. Take, for example, the musings of Alain de Botton about religion. He assumes religious assertions are false, but admires the mechanisms of religion in creating a better world. His observations are intelligent, but fairly superficial in their analysis of religion's positive effect on society. Religion changes behaviour in human beings precisely because of the belief in a the supernatural, metaphysical and eternal things they believe in, not merely because we have captivating liturgies or effective prayer lives.

Don't get me wrong, I still find this sort of analysis of religions fascinating, and I respect the intelligence of a man who can admit to having no sympathy for the belief while admiring the endeavour and achievements of religions.

I am much more interested, however, in those atheists who dismiss the existence of God as fairy tales, yet struggle with the deeper questions of the meaning of life, the purpose of individual existence and so on. (To be fair, Alain de Botton seems to address these questions in other books and presentations, just not in the one I linked.) Take, for example, the comedian and unwitting philosopher, Dylan Moran. In the segment linked below he says we are "not allowed to believe in religion" or "people will laugh at you and throw things" which is a fairly accurate summary of the way most people treat serious Christians these days. What I find interesting is that he goes on to look at some very foolish ways people attempt to find meaning in their lives. He mocks consumerism, the Internet, the cult of politics, science and evolutionary theory as substitutes for a meaning of life. I think his analysis, particularly of the Internet (Facebook etc) is very intelligent.

"We all think we are very rational and very secular, but we make gods all the time."

(Language warning!)

The day I drove my date to hospital

I haven't blogged much about life with Albert lately. Not because life has not been interesting, but because we have been exhausted.

Albert has been through several colds, two bouts of pneumonia, three tube replacements and we have lost track of how many specialist appointments. He continues to improve in general, and the medical issues are important (to do with breathing and feeding) but not life threatening for now.

Albert is long overdue for an operation to put a feeding tube directly through his side and into his tummy. He has finally progressed through three layers of medical referral to be on the surgeon's list, with a high priority (behind emergency procedures). This will allow us to finally take out the nasal tube that causes him so much distress and has meant so many trips to the hospital emergency department to get replaced when he or one of his siblings accidentally disturbs it. It will mean that Albert will be much more free to concentrate on learning to swallow liquids. (Albert was unconscious and paralysed by drugs through the months a child would normally learn those basic skills so he needs to find a different way to learn them now.)

Recently I had something of an epiphany about our struggles this year. There is a survival mode that all parents will recognise, that most parents use to cope with the first six to eight weeks of a newborn child's life. So much attention is needed to keep the baby fed, clean and happy, while the only sleep you get is half hour naps between the next crying baby episode, there is no way we can function normally. With all seven previous children we have realised we had simply kicked into survival mode during those six weeks. We have, by unspoken agreement, simply cancelled all expectations of each other, any romantic or social plan at all, and bent every effort to staying functional and vertical when necessary. We usually press through all of this knowing that eventually, six weeks later, we will see a ray of sunlight over the horizon. The baby will give us that first windy grimace in which we see the potential for the impious smile that will both warm our hearts and send a chill of 'what are you up to now' through us in years to come. The night when one of us finally gets a full nights sleep because the high maintenance baby has slipped back to being able to be managed by one parent, on THAT day the sun has risen on normal life again.

This time around, that day has not yet come. Don't get me wrong, Albert has smiled gloriously, he has giggled and played with us and his siblings. He is progressing in many ways. But the twilight zone of our survival mode began early in his pregnancy (another story for another time) and has persisted for these nine months beyond his birth. So, if we have wandered past you with a strangely vague look on our face, please do not take it personally. Almost everything we have done this year has been in that grey haze of survival mode.

Approaching the end of this year, Susie and I have decided that we refuse to wait for the survival mode to fade by itself and allow us to return to so called 'normality', whatever that is. This year marks our twentieth wedding anniversary, and we are taking a night away together for the second time in almost two decades. We are looking forward very much to Christmas with family and holidays shared with friends.

More importantly perhaps was the thing that happened last night when Albert, in one smooth and practiced motion, pulled his tube out again. My children will tell you that, in my exhausted state, my reaction normally varies between silently banging my head on a nearby flat surface and loudly reciting some of the angrier psalms in broken Hebrew. Last night I was too tired to muster any reaction at all, save to meet my wife's eyes and begin the subtle wordless negotiations that decide who will be standing beside an emergency hospital bed for the next four hours.

My wife, God bless her beautiful soul, set her jaw in that strange way that is so attractive and yet clearly communicates that 'no matter how the conversation goes, I will be getting my way'. She decided that we were both going to the hospital. That this was a date. I offered the mandatory feeble resistance (why rob her of the joy of winning by capitulating easily?) and soon we were in our way.

It was delightful. We have not driven together for quite some time. We talked, we shared concerns, stories and we laughed about trivial things. We made sport of charming the medical staff and played with Albert while we waited for them to do it our way. We drove home talking happily to the sound of his soft snores, and sat down to a coffee. As far as dates go, it was fairly tame. But it represents something far greater than I can explain. Except to say that I can see the first rays of light peeking through the clouds

Sunday, 9 November 2014

An Atheist's Attraction to Religion

The popular philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is stirring the pot among atheists by proposing a new kind of atheism. With his tongue firmly in cheek, he calls his idea "atheism 2.0".

You can check out a short version of his ideas in this TED talk.


The part that I am interested in talking about here is the use of religion as a tool for social engineering. Alain suggests that religion is admirable because it is an effective institution which gathers and manages massive amounts of money, people and resources to a unified end. He admires the way religion uses education, rituals and constant daily habits (prayer, seasonal traditions etc) to constantly reinforce its central ideas. While he is convinced that there is no God, he is concerned that throwing out religion has created a massive problem in society. He thinks that people have forgotten how to think about, choose and maintain values, virtues and goodness. He thinks that many people believed that art and culture would become the secular temples of value, but that these have demonstrably failed. He thinks that, since religion lost its influence, our ideas about happiness are at the mercy of advertisers who want to convince us that we need to buy their product to be happy.

So he proposes a form of atheism that utilises education, ritual, artistic expression, daily habits and promotion of virtue, in order to promote the values we want in a society.

On the face of it, I agree with Alain. We HAVE lost the sense of values which we constantly refer to, uphold and hold ourselves accountable to. We have lost a sense of values that are passed on from generation to generation by education and ritual. It would be a good thing if people stopped mocking religion for their 'empty' or 'pointless' rituals and their education efforts and acknowledged that religion has been doing so much good for society for thousands of years.

The problem is, this has been done before. At least two secular cultures have grasped the power of education, ritual and personal habits to communicate and sustain their desired values on a society. In fact they had a great deal of success in persuading their people and promoting their ideals elsewhere. The two examples I am referring to are Nazi Germany and Communism.

An additional problem is that the power of these tools of communication and retention of human values is not automatically good. I am not saying that education, ritual or personal habits are morally neutral. Far from it. I think that education, ritual and devotional habits have precisely the moral value of the value system they are communicating and upholding. In other words, if education, ritual and devotions seek to uphold anarchic Satanism, they would be bad.

I will go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason we can point to so many examples of religious education and ritual having a positive affect on society is that the majority of our examples come from Christianity, specifically from institutional Christianity. If the idea, the values, the world-view being promulgated is dangerous or flawed, if it promotes an unhealthy and unjust approach to living life, the education and ritual will still be powerful influences, but they should be judged on the basis of the values they promote, not on the forms used to promote them.

I do not believe we should talk about 'religion' as if the activities and values of every religious group can be assessed as a single force for good or evil in the world. A religion, and therefore its promulgation, should be judged on the central values it promotes. We should not judge this on the basis of what the religion claims to promote, but on what differences the practise of that religion consistently brings into ordinary people's lives.

By their fruits you shall know them.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

EWTN The Journey Home Interview

An interview I gave in 2005 is now on YouTube. A LOT of water has passed under the bridge since then, but the answers are the same.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Feeding Fun

It is has been quite a while since I posted an update on Albert's progress. As one friend said, "No news is good news!" While this is generally true, unfortunately there has been plenty of action between home, health professionals and hospitals.

The good news is that there have been no life threatening issues lately. Albert is advancing in motor skills, responses, producing a variety of new sounds and actions over the last month or so, delighting his specialists and therapists with his progress. He is very active when awake, managing to move himself into the most unlikely corners of a room if left on his mat even for a few minutes.

Unfortunately Albert is not making progress in oral feeding. If liquids go into his mouth, they end up in his lungs. He is able to swallows a few mouthfuls of puréed food, but not enough to be called a feed. The specialists finally conceded that it is unlikely that Albert will be feeding orally in the near future, so they initiated a process that moves us towards having a tube placed directly into his stomach through his side. The prospect of a new round of surgery, recovery and learning a new feeding procedure seemed daunting at first, but the advantages of Albert being free of his nasal gastric tube are too good to overlook. Nasal gastric tubes are designed to be used for a few weeks, perhaps a month, while someone is in hospital under careful observation. Having Albert home is great but, as he becomes more and more active, the likelihood of his tube catching on things, tangling around his neck etc is increasing daily. Susie and I have found ourselves in emergency departments (on separate occasions) after his tube has been pulled out. (The pic above is taken in an emergency department just after his tube was pulled out.)

Albert is now waiting for surgery. The line up for surgery involves our paediatrician referring us to a hospital paediatrician, who barely glanced at Albert before she wrote a referral to the outpatients department of the hospital. Outpatients then refer the file to a surgeon's office, and his office calls us in to 'consult' the surgeon and give our consent. In this context, 'consult' seems to mean that he tells us what he intends to do surgically, and recites a long list of things that could go wrong, before asking us to give consent to the operation. We have an appointment to meet the surgeon early next month.

The procedure from there is that the surgeon places Albert in the queue for surgery, which is governed more by priority/urgency than waiting for our turn. We have been told that the wait could be 1-6 months depending on other cases.

Back to the waiting game.

The reason I have not posted is more about mental exhaustion than any lack of news. Susie and I have been plodding along, taking each day as it comes, but the emotional drain has left us flat. Having Albert home is great. It is not great that we do not have the mental or physical energy to rejoice when he smiles, laugh as he gurgles, clap as he rolls over and cry as he coughs his way through a cold again.

Albert is well, he is improving in many ways, but it is still a long exhausting haul.