Monday, October 27, 2008

Brief break from blogging

Should anybody happen upon this page, do not be surprised if the last post is some days old, a week, or even older. For the next fortnight I will be very busy with other things.
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

American music

Somebody commenting on an earlier post drew my attention to this, so I thought I'd have a go at embedding a video here.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Faith of a Ten-Year-Old

Last week’s “Faith evening” (see here for the one before) was about the Good Shepherd. The initial talk by a diocesan director of catechetics (as I think she is - could be wrong on the exact job description) was very good indeed, quite making up for the lack of Redemptorists in the (post)modern parish mission. Still, I wouldn’t expect any less: she used to be a religion teacher at my wife’s school, where her absence is sorely missed. Then there was a hymn, a coffee break, and it was time to “share our faith experiences” with the rest of our table. The first session was about our images of God, this second session was about our personal faith journey (the emphasis is still very much on “us”). The assumption seemed to be that we were Catholics by accident of birth and socialization -- something that might have been true in Belgium thirty years ago, but surely not at any time since? (And of course, not in England since 1535!)

So here’s stage one of my "personal faith journey".

The religious education of children is based almost entirely on stories that are hard to distinguish from children’s stories: the Fall, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, the testing of Abraham, Jacob and Esau’s birthright, Joseph’s captivity, Moses in the bullrushes, the Walls of Jericho, David and Goliath, the Infancy narratives, Christ’s parables. When I was about nine or ten I was given a book of “Norse Myths and Legends”, and something of a crisis of faith ensued. The stories of the ancient Norsemen were much more exciting than the stories to be found in most children’s bibles. If religion was going to be a set of archetypal stories to people my imagination with, I’d much rather have the Norse myths (I’d guess this view is pretty widespread among my contemporaries). I don’t recall ever talking to anybody about this at the time, and I was conscious of not wanting to shock my parents, and also of not wanting to be open to persuasion by others until I’d thought it through for myself.

This last Saturday I was teaching my second confirmation class, and asked the children who they would go to if they had questions about their Faith. Several said their parents, one said a teacher (a particular teacher, and one I’d reckon is a good choice: the day before the Feast of St Francis she showed her class of 8 year-olds Brother Sun, Sister Moon), one said “I’d think about it quietly and see what answer came to me” (a ten-year-old illuminist?), and two said “I’d look it up in a book” (quick! get those boys catechisms!).

My own attitude at that age was a combination of the illuminist and the bookish. During Mass I prayed for faith (because I still loved Jesus, even if ancient pagans had better stories), and I read the Bible: an (Anglican) uncle had given me a Good News Bible as a First Communion present. In so far as I can consciously tell, what more than anything kept me believing in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, was biblical texts like Leviticus 14:33-53, or Deuteronomy 20:2-9. This is plainly a God not so much into stories and more into people’s actual lives (something that can’t really be said about the gods of the Norse pantheon). Perhaps I was turning into a historian even then, but I’ve never understood why Leviticus and Deuteronomy have the reputation of being dry reading.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Hidden Bible

This (or something like it) was the title of a book about apocryphal scriptures that I noticed in Sterling Books yesterday. Is it not a little like entitling an anthology of legislative bills that failed to pass into law The Hidden Statute Book? Or have I missed something?
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The uncut book

The first time I came across a book in which the pages were uncut (and seriously, all of them) was in my first term as an undergraduate. Exploring the otherwise empty college library one evening, I came upon an 80-year-old volume of Cotton Mather's sermons that seemed to have been there for decades without anybody ever reading it. I cut the first quire, more for the experience of doing so than to read the actual sermons. What I did read didn't encourage me to continue, but it means that the name "Cotton Mather" takes me back to that autumn evening in the library, the scent of old books and wood polish, a chill breeze and the sound of rustling leaves coming through the tiny opening in the sash windows, with drizzle falling on the windowpanes.

And it's just happened again: clicking on links from one blog to another to another, like a squirrel jumping from branch to branch in a forest, I happened upon the nut, or nugget, that Cotton Mather wrote a six-volume encyclopaedic biblical commentary, the Biblia Americana, that has never been published, but will be one day soon.

All very scholarly no doubt, but I'm too busy revelling in nostalgia to care about that one way or the other.
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Friday, October 17, 2008

Lunchtime in Brussels

For the past weeks, indeed pretty much full-time since the end of February (except when preparing and travelling for conferences, or to family functions, or on holiday for two weeks in July), I've been working day and night to translate a book about the sixteenth-century translator Dirck Coornhert. I might say more about Coornhert another time, as he's a fascinating character. The book, alas, is about his religious disputations rather than his translations, so it meant getting to grips with imputed righteousness and forensic justification (he wasn't a fan of either), not to mention the formal technicalities of 16th-century debate ("After your opponent's counter-statement you will have a limit of two days for rebuttal.").

The translation itself was pretty much finished at 3 a.m. yesterday (Thursday) morning. There is still revision, some tinkering with footnotes, and other minor inconveniences to be seen to, but the laborious work of breaking in the language in is finally done. The rest is grooming.

So today I took the day off. This morning I met a former colleague for coffee, in a beautiful, art nouveau café by the name of A La Mort Subite ("sudden death" being the name of a once-popular card game, and only derivatively from that a macabre name for a café), and we chatted until it was time for him to get to a lunch appointment.

He asked me along, as an unscheduled addition to the lunch party: himself, his wife, and two of his wife's colleagues. He and I are English, his wife is Czech, and her colleagues are both French-speaking Belgians. There was no single language all of us spoke well enough to converse in freely, but between English and French we managed. Of the five of us, four spoke English to a conversational level, three French, two Czech, and two Dutch (to list only those that I am aware of), so there were several overlapping languages, even though we only needed two of them. This is the sort of thing that has happened to me again and again here, and never anywhere else. It's one of the reasons I like Brussels so much. It's not much of a place to visit, but it's a fascinating place to live.

A few years ago we were at a Chinese New Year function where my oldest son, who speaks English and Dutch, was playing with two boys of about the same age: one spoke Chinese and Dutch, the other Chinese and English; so all three could converse, but never all three together.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Miracle of Amsterdam

Just put a new post about the Miracle of Amsterdam, on my other blog, which some of the readers of this one might find interesting. It's also the first time I've embedded a youtube video in a post - and I'm still astonished at how easy it was. Modern technology is a wonderful thing.
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Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Or should that be some other word? Whatever you call it, there appears to be Transatlantic consensus that young people today don't know the Our Father.

Perhaps religious education in Belgium is not as bad as I think. All the kids in my confirmation class learnt the Our Father at school!
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Taizé is coming to Brussels!

With Taizé coming to Brussels, I suppose it saves me the trouble of actually going to Taizé. They're looking for beds. Or rather, floor space for sleeping mats. We can do 4, at a pinch. Now I need to find another 20 people in the parish to take some in.
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Friday, October 10, 2008

Faith evening 1

I posted a fortnight or so ago that there were to be weekly "faith evenings" in the parish (not actually our parish - the next one over, where the children go to school). The first full session was two nights ago, and now they'll be every Wednesday for five more weeks. I had been in two minds about blogging about it at all, but a query from a fellow blogger prompts me to say something more about them.

I do so still with some reservations. One reason for reticence is the confidentiality. It's not exactly the seal of the confessional, but these things are a little like how I imagine AA meetings to be (although as my acquaintance with these goes no further than American police serials and an Elmore Leonard novella, I could be way off on that one). Another thing is that I'm not sure I can hit the tone to do justice to the thing, partly because everything is in Dutch, and I feel a little out of place for other reasons too. At the beginning of the introductory evening, two weeks ago, I heard the voice of one of the organizers behind me saying "Oh, at least fifty." She was doing a rough headcount (the final figure must be closer to seventy), but for a moment I thought she was talking about the average age of the room, and falling about a decade short. And then only about a quarter of the participants are the same sex as me, and none of them are in the subgroup I landed in by dint of being a couple of minutes late and taking the only seat left. It's odd, as a thirty-something father of four, to be told how refreshing it is to see a "youngster" at such a gathering, and realize they mean you.

As I mentioned before, we're using a handbook, the German original of which was written by a Swiss-German duo called Leo Tanner and Klemens Armbruster. The Dutch adaptation, pictured, has the imprimatur (in the form of a foreword, rather than anything old-fashioned like a nihil obstat) of the bishops of Roermond and Hasselt. There's a description of the programme (in Dutch) here.

The first exercise was to think (or rather, free-associate) about our "image of God", in order to identify and neutralize unhelpful or impeding mental images that we might not even be aware of (such as a sympathetic but ineffectual grandpa, or an emotionally distant father, or a demanding mother, or a vindictive judge). God as an abstraction of pure logic or as an impersonal cosmic force didn't get a look-in, but I'd have thought they were easily as widespread, and as nefarious. They just don't fit the psychologizing paradigm of the programme, as I guess. Which isn't necessarily a bad paradigm (I'd think in light of what I've read of Karl Stern) but this is definitely about feelings rather than ideas.

In "group work" we were supposed to be sharing our own experiences. I couldn't help wondering if this "mutual sharing" format was the most fruitful way of spending the time allotted (rather than, say, getting a Redemptorist in). Still, it beats vegetating in front of the laptop.

The handbook for the course has daily exercises, and the first, a meditation on Psalm 138 (139 in the Hebrew numbering) had me in tears. Anything that gets you reading Psalm 138 with due attention has to be good. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a meditation on John 1:35-39 to attend to:
The next day again John stood and two of his disciples. And beholding Jesus walking, he saith: Behold the Lamb of God. And the two disciples heard him speak: and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turning and seeing them following him, saith to them: What seek you? Who said to him: Rabbi (which is to say, being interpreted, Master), where dwellest thou? He saith to them: Come and see. They came and saw where he abode: and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about the tenth hour.

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Agricultural Fair

A few days ago we had the agricultural fair that comes round once a year (the jaarmarkt rather than the kermis, which we get in the Spring - on Corpus Christi Sunday, to be precise). It's a bit like a harvest festival, in a way.

I mention it for two reasons. Firstly, to illustrate how ill-constituted I am to blog: rather than go out and get down immediate impressions from the fair itself, blogging on a mobile phone, and uploading pictures taken with said phone as I do so, I just wander around aimlessly, letting the children eat waffles the size of their heads, and don't think to mention it until days later. Secondly, because it really is rather odd.

This is a municipality just beyond Brussels, and the planning zones are a mix of commercial/industrial (particularly the bits under and inside the motorway ring road around Brussels), residential (particularly towards Brussels, on the major routes into the city and their side roads) and agricultural (hidden away behind the ribbon development on said major routes and side roads). So there are plenty of agricultural traditions, such as the annual market, but they take place in what any casual observer would imagine was a residential suburb. The quiet suburban streets are shut off with barriers and strewn with sawdust to make them more suitable for cows and horses to be paraded up and down against a backdrop of small blocks of flats, an orthodontist's surgery, a handful of cafés, and the estate agent's window.

And as I mentioned not so long ago that colours can be a sensitive issue, it was a joy to see the draught horses festively adorned with black, yellow and red, not just on their tack or bridles, but even in the plaits in their manes.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Newman's grave

It seems that there will be no primary relics of the Blessed John Henry Newman to be venerated. I can't help thinking this is somehow appropriate. Makes one wonder how archaeologists ever manage to find anything at all, really.

In an earlier post I mentioned reading Joyce Sugg's anthology of Newman's letters. It's a very nicely produced, clothbound OUP edition, that I borrowed from the university library. Monday night, splatter from a vomiting child hit the cover. I think I've got it clean enough to return, as long as the librarian doesn't decide to hold it up at an angle to the light.

And in recent purchases: Roderick Strange's John Henry Newman. A Mind Alive, a very timely publication.
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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Home again, home again ...

at last, and buzzing with caffeine, and recovering from the six-hour drive (each way), and the effort of making baptismal vows in German. But it has to be said: German motorway services are so much cleaner than those that one gets used to elsewhere!
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Friday, October 3, 2008

Nephews and nieces

Just now we're busy getting ready to go to a christening in Wilhelmshaven. The christening is tomorrow, but it's a six-hour drive, so we're spending two nights there. Matters are complicated by dental appointments corresponding with the time that the schools close for the weekend, and the time we should be hitting the road to miss the traffic - so we'll have to be in three places at once (as there are only two of us, this will have to involve bilocation, or really, really good timing).

I'm looking forward to seeing family at the christening. Last Sunday one of my brothers had Mass said for our late mother, at the Abbey of Park, and provided lunch afterwards. Not all of us could make it, but it was a joy to see those that could, and to spend a bit of time with nephews and nieces. As so often, the afternoon made me reflect that we ought to make more of an effort to create such occasions to see one another.

All being well, there'll be another christening to go to next year.
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Thursday, October 2, 2008


I'll get back to blogging soon; in the meantime, another link.
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