Sunday, November 29, 2009

The end of the blog

I'll be leaving things in place as a repository of links, not just for myself but particularly for people searching for the phrases "By God Sir, I've lost my leg", "opening scene of Gladiator" and "Baby Jesus at the breast". But I have no intention of adding new posts (and will be systematically paring back a lot of what is here). Wishing any readers a fruitful advent, a merry Christmas, and a prosperous New Year!
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Monday, November 23, 2009

Rising like a phoenix

Might not be the fate of this blog (although one can hope), but is certainly the fate of the rest of us, as the first patristic document, Clement of Rome's Letter to the Christians of Corinth, explains.
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

Silver, gold and stonework

Through different friends on Facebook I've been made aware of recent discoveries of Viking silver and Anglo-Saxon gold. Beautiful stuff.

Less in the news, but of interest here, is that Outlandish Knight has provided a link to his photographs of early Norman churches, fonts, and corbels.
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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

conversio ut orator

The past few weeks the impetus of the blog seems to have failed for one reason or another. One such reason (not a large one, it must be said) is the fun and distraction of teaching a course on the historical and cultural context of English literature, 600-1660. Last week's class was about Bede (and "The Ruin", Caedmon's Hymn, and "The Dream of the Rood"); a lot for just two hours of class time.

Tomorrow's class is on just one work: Beowulf. I'm very excited to be able (at last!) to teach about Beowulf. Perhaps more excited than will be good for the class. If anybody's interested, I'll be sure to let you know how it went.

But tonight is the Vespers of the Feast of St Jerome, translator of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. He defended his translation method as "translating not like an interpreter but like an orator": making an attempt to convey the beauty of the original, rather than (woodenly) its meaning. As this is the blog of a historian and translator, the occasion can hardly be allowed to pass uncelebrated. So today's collect:
O God, Who for the expounding of the Holy Scriptures didst raise up in Thy Church the great and holy Doctor Jerome; we beseech Thee, grant that by his intercession and merits we may, by Thy help, be enabled to practice what he taught us both by word and by work.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Our Lady of Sorrows

Or should that be "Sorrows of Our Lady"?

In any case, to continue the last post's theme of ravishing Vespers:

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Exaltation of the Cross

Yesterday evening I spent making Latin flashcards, including "REX / regis (m.) king". And to help the morphology sink in, a dose of Vespers for today:

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Monday, September 7, 2009


A conversation in the comments of another blog brought up some remarks that the Archbishop of Westminster made about social networking sites (Facebook and so forth), as reported in the Telegraph. Reading it is hilarious.

I should perhaps say that I wrote my doctorate about newspapers, so when I'm reading a newspaper report my foremost thought is not "What happened?" (or "What was said?"), but "What does the journalist think happened?" (or "Did he even understand what was said?").

It's unavoidable that some simplification should be found in a newspaper report (that is pretty much what journalists exist to do: pot things), but even so it's remarkable here how the Archbishop's own words are an awful lot more nuanced than those that the journalist "fills in" without using quotation marks. It begins with the headline.

Headline: "Facebook and MySpace can lead children to commit suicide"
Actual quotation near bottom of article: "Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships."

Journalist: "The archbishop blamed social network sites for leaving children with impoverished friendships."
Actual words of Archbishop: "Facebook and MySpace might contribute towards communities, but I'm wary about it. It's not rounded communication so it won't build a rounded community," he said. "If we mean by community a genuine growing together and a mutual sharing in an interest that is of some significance then it needs more than Facebook."

It is worth reminding young people (and not-so-young people, and - need I add? - ourselves) that a Facebook "friend" and an online "community" are not at all the same thing as a friend or a community. That handy tools for keeping in touch with people at a distance shouldn't distract us from getting in touch with people in the same street as us, or the same house. Strange that it's a point that a Telegraph journalist can't grasp without sensationalising.
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Thursday, September 3, 2009

1419 years ago today

Gregory, a man renowned for learning and behaviour, was promoted to the apostolical see of Rome, and presided over it thirteen years, six months and ten days. He, being moved by Divine inspiration, in the fourteenth year of the same emperor [maurice], and about the one hundred and fiftieth after the coming of the English into Britain, sent the servant of God, Augustine, and with him several other monks, who feared the Lord, to preach the word of God to the English nation. they having, in obedience to the pope's commands, undertaken that work, were, on their journey, seized with a sudden fear, and began to think of returning home, rather than proceed to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation, to whose very language they were strangers; and this they unanimously agreed was the safest course. In short, they sent back. Augustine, who had been appointed to be consecrated bishop in case they were received by the English, that he might, by humble entreaty, obtain of the Holy Gregory, that they should not be compelled to undertake so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey. The pope, in reply, sent them a hortatory epistle, persuading them to proceed in the work of the Divine word, and rely on the assistance of the Almighty.

(Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk 1, ch. 23, as found at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook)

St Gregory's instructions on evangelization, written to Mellitus in 601, were among the most influential ever:

When Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, after mature deliberation on the affairs of the English, determined upon, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples - let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that the be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts and, knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be substituted for them on this account, as, for instance, that on the day of the dedication, or of the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, no more offering beasts to the devil, but killing cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and returning thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are permitted them, they may the more easily consent to thee inward consolations of the grace of God.

For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface every thing at once from their obdurate minds, because he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps. This the Lord made himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt: and yet he allowed them to use the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the devil in his own worship, commanding them in his sacrifice to kill beasts to the end that, changing their hearts they mad lay aside one part of the sacrifice whilst retained another: that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols, and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices.

Oh, and he wrote the Life of St Benedict :)
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Seventy years ago today

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Speaking Truth to Power

Today being the Memorial of the Beheading of St John the Baptist gives another reason to post a Van der Weyden reproduction, this one borrowed from Olga's Gallery:

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

More on Milan

Quite some time back I blogged about being in Milan, and about Newman's remarks on the cathedral. Just lately I happened on this description of the city, by one of the products of Oratorian education:

What a magnificent city is Milan! The great houses are all of stone, and stand regular and in order, along wide straight streets. There are swift cars, drawn by electricity, for such as can afford them. Men are brisk and alert even in the summer heats, and there are shops of a very good kind, though a trifle showy. There are many newspapers to help the Milanese to be better men and to cultivate charity and humility; there are banks full of paper money; there are soldiers, good pavements, and all that man requires to fulfil him, soul and body; cafés, arcades, mutoscopes, and every sign of the perfect state. And the whole centres in a splendid open square, in the midst of which is the cathedral, which is justly the most renowned in the world.
The source is Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, first published 1902 (7th impression, London, 1949), 294-295.
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Monday, July 27, 2009

Baby Jesus at the breast

For the past week or so I've been busy, in an inefficient and mentally diffuse manner, with translations for the catalogue of a major exhibition about Rogier van der Weyden, kicking off in September.

Van der Weyden was Philip II's favourite old master; well, he was a lot of people's favourite old master. He conveyed the emotions of biblical episodes with a vividness that helped people imagine what it must have been like to be there - a big part of late medieval and early modern devotional practice.

In the course of background work for the translating (that is, actually trying to find the pictures being described) I came across the above picture on wikipedia, which assures me it's out of copyright (and since the original is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I imagine they're right - it's not one of the thousands of images that somebody "liberated" from behind the National Portrait Gallery's firewall)

The user statistics for this blog show that a fair number of the people who stumble across it do so by googling for pictures of Our Lady either pregnant or breastfeeding - something I blogged about in Advent last year. So I thought I'd add this one, for their benefit.
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A flaw in the system

It's surprising to see that it's been two whole months since I last posted here - I knew I hadn't been giving the blog much attention, but I hadn't realised it had been so very long.

Part of the rationale behind this blog was that it might be a way of building some sort of reflection into the day - what had been done, said, thought, or left undone - and then publicly recording any of that that might conceivably be of interest to others (and while I might be a poor judge of the latter, dear read, nobody is forced to read this stuff!). But one of the first casualties of things left undone has been regular daily reflection. Ho hum.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Top 100 Hymns

A link from Facebook took me to a blog where I read about a project on another blog to gather a fairly random list of people's favourite hymns. The BBC did this a few years ago and came out with a top 10 of "the nation's favourite hymns" that looked like this:
  1. How Great Thou Art
  2. Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
  3. The Day Thou Gavest
  4. Be Thou My Vision
  5. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
  6. Be Still, For The Presence Of The Lord
  7. Make Me A Channel
  8. Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer
  9. In Christ Alone
  10. Shine, Jesus, Shine
I'm not sure what my own top 10 would be, or the order of them, as thinking about it I can only whittle the list down as far as 12 (including 4 of the BBC's top 10), and that's without putting them in any order of preference:

  • At the Cross Her Station Keeping
  • The Lord is My Shepherd
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • Adeste Fideles
  • Pange Lingua
  • The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended
  • Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
  • Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer
  • O Come, O Come Emmanuel
  • Abide With Me
  • Praise My Soul the King of Heaven
  • Lead, Kindly Light

Still, if I do get round to making a ranked list of 10, I'll be sure to let the lady at the blog know!
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Sunday, May 24, 2009


Just back from a four-day-weekend at the seaside (Ascension is a holiday here, and the Friday fell down the crack between that and the weekend proper), to find that one of the blogs I read has put up a link to a BBC report on an archaeologist opining as to when and why Europe's deep-sea fisheries got started (or is it just England's? - always hard to tell with the BBC, on whose website I once saw William Caxton described as an "inventor").
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Monday, May 18, 2009


Looking for last-minute material for my students, I happened on this just now:

Brings back memories ...
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Displacement activity

Well, the sound of stone being worked with a circular saw is keeping me from focusing on the work I should be doing, so a quick update on the blog might at least be something.

Tuesday I taught about Northern Ireland in the course on "the English-speaking peoples of Europe"; the Tuesday before about the Republic; the Tuesday before that I cancelled the class because of my hand being in plaster - how can I possibly teach if I can't even shave?

Two of my students have asked me whether they can reschedule my exam rather than have to sit two exams on one day. It's a question that would never even have crossed my mind as a student. But it was rather touching when one of them whined "But the other exam is really important!" Such charmingly comical unfamiliarity with even the most basic principles of wheedling!
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Canticle of Hezekiah

The canticle used in this morning's Morning Prayer has taken on a much more personal significance over the past week or so. Here it is, in the King James rather than the Revised Standard Version:

I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.

I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.

Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.

I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.

Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me.

What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul.

O LORD, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live.

Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.

For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.

The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.

The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.

So, time to turn to this day's work.
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Monday, April 20, 2009

Oo, oo, oo!

Very excited to find that my favourite director, Ching Siu Tung, had a new film out last year (why did nobody tell me???).

Now what was my amazon password again?

Also, a word to the wise: if anti-inflammatories with the "rare" side-effects of dizziness, sleeplessness, depression, anxiety and confusion say "to be taken with food", make sure you line your stomach well.
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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fourth Anniversary

This evening we went to Mass at the Cathedral in Brussels for a change - Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnes Dei sung in Latin, the rest of the Mass a pretty even split between French and Dutch. I'll never get used to the way they give half the sermon in each language (bizarrely, de Lubac was quoted in a language I understand at near-native level, but Newman wasn't).

The Cardinal, flanked by half a dozen bishops and/or monseigneurs (I'm none too clear just who gets to wear a ?purple skullcap), offered the Mass in celebration of the anniversary of the present pope's election, 4 years ago tomorrow. I've never seen so many children in a Belgian church all at once. The bidding prayers were all explicitly for various papal intentions; the sermon (what I could make of it, between the children's noise and the cardinal's total inability to project his voice) dwelt briefly on St Catherine of Siena as a model of loyalty to the papal office.

My bad hand is throbbing from trying (and failing) to control fractious children. Still, number two son was quite in awe of the massive sword that the nave's statue of St Paul wields; and number two daughter quite liked the tiny St Michael casting down a dragon-shaped demon, carved into the wood of the main door.

Just this morning I had a JW at the door disputing my explication of Low Sunday's Gospel - and I thought they didn't "keep days"? It's a day of special importance to me, figuring in the choice of my first child's name (and if you were wondering, he isn't called Quasimodo).
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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter break

Having laid off bogging during Lent I will, perforce, be even quieter during the first weeks of the Easter season. This morning a simple piece of everyday clumsiness (involving Easter eggs, a running child, outstretched arms and a doorframe) somehow managed to split the first phalange of my little finger as close to lengthways as possible. Back from having pins put in it, my right hand (and I'm right-handed) is all in plaster but the thumb. So typing is on a need-to-type basis for the immediate future.

Signing off with a prayer that any readers out there have a blessed Easter.

Unable to resist updating to add: it was local anaesthetic, so I could hum "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" during the procedure, while the orthopedic surgeon (as bluff and hearty as all orthopedic surgeons seem to be) was humming "Yellow Submarine".
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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Lenten Reading

Last year I tried to read Augustine's City of God (the Penguin translation) for the third time, and got as far as halfway through book 3 (out of a total of 22 books). It's not even a personal best: I got up to book 8 on my first attempt, almost twenty years ago. Of course, back then I was a student, and had read the Confessions three times pretty much in a row.

So this year I thought I'd go for something a bit lighter, that I might actually get to the end of, and happened in quick succession on G. K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi and the Oxford World Classics edition of The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi and the Life of Brother Giles, "rendered into English verse by James Rhoades". In light of last year's holiday on the Tuscan-Umbrian borderlands it seemed almost providential. If you want to hear more, click below.

St Francis was one of the great antidotes to a mood of otherworldliness that found its most extreme expression in the Albigensians (a nasty lot with a proclivity for letting babies starve, on the grounds that earthly life was a bad thing and babies were better off without it; one reason why they always get such a favourable press from a media not otherwise given to promoting long-dead sects of world-hating fanatics begins to dawn on me). Everything that Francis did combined a repudiation of worldliness with an embrace of the world. He not only celebrated the Creation, he did so creatively - as a builder, a poet, a performer - in the case of the first Nativity scene, as a director of performance art. I've never been one to go misty-eyed about St Francis (the line in Chesterton's book that most chimed with me is "the Church could contain all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not contain all that was good in the Church") but I do have much more of an appreciation of him now than I did twelve months ago.

The other thing that struck me quite forcibly was Chesterton's point about the Spiritual Franciscans, these days perhaps best known from featuring in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose:

Many idealists of a socialistic sort, notably of the school of Mr. Shaw or Mr. Wells [and would it be unjust to add Professor Eco?], have treated this dispute as if it were merely a case of the tyranny of wealthy and wicked pontiffs crushing the true Christianity of Christian Socialists. But in truth this extreme ideal was in a sense the very reverse of Socialist, or even social. Precisely the thing which these enthusiasts refused was that social ownership on which Socialism is built; what they primarily refused to do was what Socialists primarily exist to do; to own legally in their corporate capacity.

They didn't hold anything in common, because they refused to hold anything at all.

Chesterton is well known, and at one time or another I've read quite a lot of what he wrote, despite an early resistance based on my mother telling me he was worth reading (teenagers are strange things). James Rhoades, the translator of the Little Flowers (first published 1904), is a name otherwise unknown to me. He's not in the Oxford DNB. A lecture he once gave on the subject of "The Training of the Imagination" is available online (a scan with poor OCR conversion, to judge from the spelling), and contains the wonderful sentence:

"Inconveniences," says Sir Thomas Elyot, "always doe happen by ingurgitation and excessive feedinges," and this is no less true of the mind than of the body.

I'm sure it's a line I've come across before somewhere, but I can't place it. Copac turns up translations of Virgil's Aeneid and Georgics, and some volumes of original verse, including "The Prince of Wales at the Tomb of Washington: A Poem" (Rugby, 1861): written when the author was 20. The last piece is bizarrely tempting, but on the whole I'm not inspired to hunt any further: his "rendering" of The Little Flowers is appalling.

Here's his version of the reception of Fra Angelo:

And since this answer liked Saint Francis well,
Within the Order he forthwith received,
And blessed, and named him Brother Angelo

And here's the prose version in Dom Roger Hudleston's edition (published in 1926):

This answer greatly pleased St Francis, and giving the young man his blessing, he received him immediately into the Order, and gave him the name of Brother Angelo.

Which might not be in verse but has the inestimable advantage of being in decent English. Still, I'm not so fond of reading extended texts online, or of reams of printout, and the Oxford World Classic (1925 edition) is not only to hand, but inscribed with my mother's name and the date 1967, when she would have been a 2nd or 3rd-year History student at Manchester University. The Little Flowers is not, in any real sense, a source about St Francis's life. It's a collection of striking stories about him that were doing the rounds over a hundred years after his death (converting the wolf, preaching to the birds, converting three robbers, preaching naked, preaching to the Sultan of Babylon, healing a leper, etc.) so strictly it's only a source as to how his life was perceived and remembered at a later period. Which isn't to say there aren't good sources, just that this composition doesn't really count as one.

To end, here's the chapter How Saint Francis Kept Lent (from Hudleston, to spare you the backward-running sentences):

The true servant of Christ, St Francis, was in certain things like unto a second Christ given to the world for the salvation of souls. Wherefore God the Father willed that in many points he should be conformed to his Son, Jesus Christ, as we have already explained in the calling of his twelve companions, as also in the mystery of the holy stigmata, and in a fast of forty days which he made in the manner following:

St Francis, one day of the Carnival, was near the Lake of Perugia, in the house of one of his devout children, with whom he had spent the night, when he was inspired by God to go and pass the time of Lent in an island on the lake. Wherefore St Francis begged his friend, for the love of God, to convey him in his boat to an island uninhabited by man: the which he should do during the night of Ash Wednesday, so that none might know where he was; and the friend, because of the great devotion he bore to St Francis, agreed to his request, and conveyed him to the said island, St Francis taking with him naught but two small loaves. When they had reached the island, his friend left him and returned home; the saint earnestly entreating him to reveal to no one where he was, and not to come and fetch him before Holy Thursday; to which he consented. St Francis being left alone, and there being no dwelling in the island in which he could take shelter, entered into a thick part of the wood all overgrown with brambles and other creeping plants, and forming as it were a kind of hut, there he began to pray and enter into the contemplation of divine things. And there he passed the whole of Lent without drinking or eating save half of one of the small loaves he had taken with him, as we learned from his friend who, going to fetch him on Holy Thursday, found one of the loaves untouched and the other only half consumed. It is believed that St Francis ate this half out of reverence for our Blessed Lord, who fasted forty days and forty nights without taking any material food; for by eating this bit of bread he put aside the temptation to vainglory, and yet fasted forty days and forty nights in imitation of the Saviour. In later times God worked many miracles, through the merits of the saint, on the spot where St Francis had fasted so wonderfully, on which account people began to build houses and dwell there, and little by little a town rose up, with a convent called the Convent of the Isle; and to this day the inhabitants of that town hold in great respect and great devotion the spot in which St Francis passed the time of Lent.

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Or at least a cross to bear. A Californian cousin who shares my name wrote a book about how St Patrick is a Protestant. I'm constantly afraid that if I apply for a job and anybody on the appointments committee googles my name they won't take me very seriously afterwards. Now I find that mistyping the url of my blog, in this case omitting the "s" in "blogspot", will bring you here. Oh woe is me!
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Historical curiosities

I find it hard to comprehend why, with this song coming out at the same time as the first Beatles album, it was the Beatles people went wild about. Can anyone explain?

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alasdair MacIntyre in Dublin

In November 2000 I visited a friend from school who had got a job with People’s Education Press in Beijing revising their English textbooks. He had, at the time, recently completed a doctoral thesis at Hong Kong University. After a hard day’s sightseeing (for me, he’d had to work) we were chatting and drinking in his PEP-provided flat, in a massive complex in a smoky Beijing suburb (the sort of place where smoking or not smoking made little difference to the state of one’s lungs), when I picked a book up off his desk with the arresting title After Virtue. He urged me to read it, praising the author, Alasdair MacIntyre, beyond all measure. So when I got home I bought a copy, and soon thereafter started reading, and rereading, anything else by MacIntyre that I could lay hands on. It was a mind-expanding and eye-opening experience. His books combine denseness with readability - you don't have to have studied philosophy to follow, but you do have to work hard. And most excitingly, they combine a tremendous breadth of erudition with a genuine sense of what it means for real people to make moral choices. I don’t know how MacIntyre is regarded by other philosophers, but he’s certainly got fans in the fields of the History of Education and the History of Communication.

A few weeks ago MacIntyre gave a lecture in University College Dublin, entitled “On having survived the academic moral philosophy of the twentieth century”. I’d seen the lecture advertised, and had been planning to go (a mark of my seriousness as a fan, but with cheap flights, and a friend willing to put me up in Bray, not as much of a mark as you might imagine). A number of family, parish and professional duties conspired to keep me in Belgium. So I was delighted to discover through a post on another blog that UCD had put up a video of the lecture online (follow the link, and scroll down a little). At last I have a face and a voice to put to the words I've read and reread to such effect!

The lecture is an autobiographical “story in eight parts”, and recapitulates in just over three quarters of an hour a philosophical journey that took decades. From an autobiographical perspective, the key line is: “I was 55 years old when I discovered that I had become a Thomist Aristotelian.” For those interested in getting to grips with it, click here for a more detailed breakdown of what he says: my own notes attempting to work through the denseness mentioned above. I was a little surprised, but probably shouldn't be, at how often Peter Geach was mentioned. I've recently been reading what I can by his wife, Elizabeth Anscombe, but I haven't (yet) read much by Geach himself.

Part one (at 1 min 30 secs): as a student MacIntyre had to regard Thomism as problematic, due to the state of Analytic Philosophy. Attending Ayer’s seminar at UCL (while studying Classics at QMC), MacIntyre “became convinced that the test of any philosophical thesis ... was whether or not it could be vindicated in and through such debates” - rigorous debates that seemed never to reach a definitive conclusion, so “However strong the case for Thomism, there was bound to be a strong case against it, just because however strong the case for anything, there turned out to be a strong case against it.”

Part two (at 6 mins 12 secs): Thomism was not only problematic, but was rejected. MacIntyre was introduced to Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism” on a visit to Paris in 1947, imbibing the notion that “What makes a paricular reason a good or a sufficient reason for me to act depends on my decision to treat that reason as good or sufficient.” Ayer and Sartre agreed (although disagreeing about much else) that Thomism must be wrong to hold that a good reason is valid regardless of whether we choose to accept it as such. A Thomist evaluates choices in the light of ends; for Ayer and Sartre ends are determined by choices. Concluding (as MacIntyre then did) that one can choose between the two views as a matter of personal opinion is, in fact, to reject the Thomistic view.

Part three (at 9 mins 13 secs): MacIntyre became a Marxist (of the post-1956 "New Left") and still accepts the validity of Marx’s critique of capitalism. On the basis of Marxist insights, he sought to identify “the distinctive morality of the social and economic order that I now inhabit”: a morality that, in practical life, oscillates between Kantianism and Utilitarianism, two philosophically incompatible systems. Marxism, however, has no alternative moral resources of its own, and suffers from much the same confusions. Where can a suitable standard be found for laying bare the problems with the morality of modernity?

Part four (at 14 mins 12 secs): Describes two lines of thought about the meaning of the word “good” in English philosophy since 1930s. First, the expressivism of Ayer et al.: to speak of something as good is to express an approving sentiment (rather than a moral truth). alternatively, Austin: the meaning of “good” in ordinary language is extremely heterogeneous. Peter Geach (1956): "good" and "bad" are noun-phrase-dependent adjectives, so “What it is for an x to be good depends on what the x is” ("a good king", "a good burglar"), which leads on to Aristotelian position that “To be a good x is to excel in the activities characteristic of an x” (a judgement one can arrive at regardless of one’s personal approval or disapproval of the thing or activity in question). Can the existence of such an objective standard of goodness be seen in human life in general, can there be such a thing as "the good life"? This is the philosophical heart of the lecture. MacIntyre enumerates four types of general goods:

“First, without adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter, physical exercise, education and opportunity to work, no one is likely to develop their powers - physical, intellectual, moral, aesthetic - adequately. Secondly, everyone benefits from affectionate support by, well-designed instruction from, and critical interaction with family, friends, colleagues. Thirdly, without an institutional framework that provides stability and security over time, a variety of forms of association, exchange and long-term planning are impossible. And fourthly, if an individual is to become and sustain her or himself as an independent rational agent, she or he needs powers of practical rationality, self-knowledge, of communication, of enquiry and understanding. Lives that are significantly defective in any one of these four respects are judged worse, that is less choice-worthy, than lives that are not. ... Thus on any version of this line of thought, ... there are standards independent of our feelings, attittudes and choices, by which we may judge whether this or that is choice-worthy, whether this or that is good to choose, to do, to be, to have, to feel.”

Expressivism is profoundly at odds with any such view, but how is the issue between them to be resolved (without implicitly granting the expressivist case)?

Part five (at 24 mins 22 secs): At the level of theory, of academic debate, the quarrel remains inconclusive - with much brilliance deployed on either side. It is “one more example of an interminable controversy.”

Part six (at 27 mins 58 secs): Practice does provide an answer: through “housework, farmwork, learning Latin and Geometry, building houses and making furniture, playing soccer and playing in string quartets” we discover standards of excellence that require us to recognize goods independent of our own feelings and preferences. Without a disciplining of our desires, “good” will bear an expressivist meaning; with it, we will recognize independent standards of goodness. Expressivism and objectivism are not two accounts of moral life, but accounts of two different types of moral life: the modern and the traditional (not a term MacIntyre actually uses - I think he says "ancient").

Furthermore, the goods of particular practices can only be given due weight in relation to one another if common goods are secured - the goods of “family, neighborhood, school, clinic, workplace, political community”. As we correct our inclinations, we gain a clearer view of a final end, to which we can only move through certain habits (virtues). Theory serves to clarify our understanding of what we discover through practice, and makes intellectual constructs such as Kantianism or Utilitarianism moot. It gives insight into why these are wrong (or irrelevant), but cannot overcome them within the forum of theoretical debate. The moral confusion of modernity results from the lack of a shared mode of practical life. Practices also provide grounds for remedying defects within Aristotelianism, and choosing between rival versions of Aristotelianism. MacIntyre came to see a Thomist version of Aristotelianism as superior to any other version.

Part seven (at 39 mins 02 secs): outlines some of the defects and limitations of contemporary academic moral philosophy, which deals with abstractions, and lacks appreciation of the practical circumstances in which the questions it discusses actually matter. Needs sociological, anthropological and historical grounding, but meta-ethical debate eschews such empirical data. Shows “an inability to recognize first that contemporary morality of advanced capitalist modernity is only one morality among many, and secondly that it is, as a morality of everyday life, in a state of disorder, a state of fragmentation, oscillation and contradiction.” Tremendous amount of fruitless (unread) writing being done, inculcating dubious habits of mind about what academic moral philosophy is for, while direct practical engagement is not being encouraged at all.

Part eight (at 46 mins 50 secs): two thoughts: a critique of moral confusion and academic fruitlessness must be from “the margins” of modernity and of the academy - in MacIntyre’s case informed by both Thomism and Marxism, “marginal movements of thought”, “sustained and enriched” by Jacques Maritain, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Charles De Koninck and Ralph McInerny (in the one case); and Georg Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, C.L.R. James and Michael Kidron (in the other). (Not sure I got De Koninck and Kidron right - couldn't quite make out the names and am making an (ill?) informed guess.) But any critique of the mainstream of modern moral philosophy has to learn as much as it can from that philosophy, and understand its strengths and weaknesses from within as well as from without.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lenten Stuff

It's Annunciation Eve (so I'm getting in a bit of anticipatory blogging), and I wish I knew more about the solemnities that fall in Lent (that is, from the point of view of how "Lenten" a celebration ought to be: feasting and fasting are both important, but hardly combine well).

Between evening meetings and losing my voice for a fortnight, reading out the Imitation in modern Dutch has been a slow business. We've only just got to book I, chapter 13, and a passage that could have been written for me:

Some are kept safe from great temptations, but are overtaken in those which are little and common, that the humiliation may teach them not to trust to themselves in great things, being weak in small things.

Thursday last week the cardinal came and gave a lecture at the parish I help out in, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation. He speaks very well, and says very sensible things. His pastoral letters, his lectures, his essays and his sermons always contain, and convey, so much wisdom. How have things come so badly unstuck on his watch? You wonder why someone so sensible seems so reluctant to do anything about it.

On a lighter note, looking for material to illustrate a lecture on (among other things) the BSE crisis, I came across this rendition of Roast Beef of Old England:

Hardly Lenten fare. But Fielding: what a genius!
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Feast of St Patrick

And to celebrate the occasion (a day late, but better late than never), my favourite hymn (the one I sometimes sing when the hymn provided in the Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer is unknown to me - which, for morning prayer at least, is most of the time).

The lyrics were produced a hundred years ago, as an English translation of an ancient Irish hymn attributed to Dallan Forgaill. The tune is "Slane", which gives the pretext for posting it: Slane Hill is where St Patrick reputedly lit a fire to celebrate the Easter vigil, in defiance of the pagan custom which dictated that, it also being the night of a pagan festival, no fire be kindled until the king had been seen to light his on nearby Tara Hill.

The final verse of the hymn suddenly brings to mind the envoi to Hilaire Belloc's Ballade of Illegal Ornaments:

The controversy was ended by His Lordship, who wrote to the Incumbent ordering him to remove from the Church all Illegal Ornaments at once, and especially a Female Figure with a Child.

When that the Eternal deigned to look
On us poor folk to make us free
He chose a Maiden, whom He took
From Nazareth in Galilee;
Since when the Islands of the Sea,
The Field, the City, and the Wild
Proclaim aloud triumphantly
A Female Figure with a Child.

These Mysteries profoundly shook
The Reverend Doctor Leigh, D.D.,
Who therefore stuck into a Nook
(Or Niche) of his Incumbency
An Image filled with majesty
To represent the Undefiled,
The Universal Mother — She —
A Female Figure with a Child.

His Bishop, having read a book
Which proved as plain as plain could be
That all the Mutts had been mistook
Who talked about a Trinity
Wrote off at once to Doctor Leigh
In manner very far from mild,
And said: "Remove them instantly!
A Female Figure with a Child!"

Prince Jesus, in mine Agony,
Permit me, broken and defiled,
Through blurred and glazing eyes to see
A Female Figure with a Child.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Third Sunday of Lent

Catechism class yesterday was great. To freshen up their memory of everything done so far there was a quiz (not in the American sense, but an actual quiz, with teams conferring and competing). Both sides did brilliantly, ending with a 33-all draw. As a sudden-death tie-breaker each team had to come up with a Gospel passage (a story about or told by Jesus), and the first team to get stuck would lose. So the 11-year-olds shouted back and forth: Prodigal Son! Nativity! Resurrection! Stilling the storm! Baptism in the Jordan! Forty days in the desert! Two loaves and five fishes - no, I mean the other way around! The Crucifixion! The parable of the two brothers! The Finding in the Temple! When Jesus was on the mountain and suddenly Moses and that other one were there too - was it Elijah? That woman who went with a man and they wanted to kill her and Jesus wouldn't let them! And on and on. In total they came up with 36 Gospel passages between them, before a draw had to be called for lack of time.

Tuesday I'll be lecturing about the Thatcher Revolution; or: how wealth accumulates and men decay.

Lenten renewal hasn't been going too well. Giving stuff up (meat, coffee, sugar, alcohol, blogging, TV, Facebook, reading novels - I think that about covers it) has been surprisingly easy, but any more positive undertakings have been impeded by illness, sloth, and the continuation of time-consuming and dependent habits in other forms (reading blogs, commenting on blogs, watching Youtube: what's the point of giving up Facebook, blogging and TV if this is how I spend my evenings?). Well, at least I suppose I'm clearer about where the problems are.

Speaking of Youtube, Friday night I was up till almost 2.30 in the morning watching clips of Hong Kong films. It's amazing how much is on there. Ching Siu-Tung, Wong Kar Wai, John Woo and half a dozen other directors basically got me through my doctorate, by providing the only entertainment that actually enabled me to stop thinking about it before going to bed. For two or three years I was watching two or three East Asian films a week - first on video and then on VCD. Not that I was buying or borrowing them at such a rate (even with VCDs so cheap at the Chinese supermarket, and Brussels public library not badly stocked with Asian cinema) - there are twenty or so films I've seen half a dozen times apiece, and another twenty or so I've seen at least twice. Films from the People's Republic, Taiwan, Japan and Korea got added to the mix in time, but Hong Kong was always at the heart of it. It began from happening to catch A Chinese Ghost Story on late-night television at my parents' house. It ended with five years of Chinese classes in evening school. With two or three children there still seemed to be time for that; with four, somehow, not. Of course, the seeds were planted in childhood, with Monkey and The Water Margin.

So here is the opening to A Chinese Ghost Story, establishing Leslie Cheung's "wandering scholar" character (reduced to working as a tax inspector or debt collector):

The director, Ching Siu-Tung, is a cinematic genius. Readers might know him as the action choreographer on House of Flying Daggers. The plot of Ghost Story is inspired by a 17th-century collection of "Strange Tales", and (not untypically) involves a lonely scholar seduced by a ghost (it also involves a mysterious painting, a sword-wielding Taoist monk, a cruel and ancient tree spirit, a Buddhist sutra, and the legions of hell, as well as pratfalls and exploding incantations: it really is a film that has everything). Here, in full, is the one and only (and relatively discreet) sex scene, the highpoint of the film not because of the impassioned embraces, but because of Sally Yeh singing "Dawn do not come" (黎明不要來 - "Li Ming Bu Yao Lai" is how I was taught to read these characters; but this being Cantonese she's singing "Lai Ming But Yiu Loi"):

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

2nd Sunday of Lent

Catechesis yesterday afternoon was about the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. And led on into a consideration of the Eucharist. The programme we use had a three step procedure: the story itself (with Jesus explaining Scripture and then breaking bread); thinking about what it means to break bread in memory of Jesus, or to recognise Jesus in the the breaking of bread; and a consideration of Sunday Mass. The middle step was supposed to let them grope towards the conclusion, brainstorming about the question "How might we go about 'remembering Jesus' or 'recognising Jesus' in the 'breaking of bread'?" before getting all explicit about the Mass, and Jesus's presence in the Eucharist.

But the youngsters were a step ahead of me, two or three of them immediately identifying the story as Eucharistic (it probably helps that they also have RE in school). Their brainstormed list of 'what we would need to remember Jesus' turned out to be: a church, an altar, bread, wine, the Scriptures, a priest, a diocese, the Pope, Faith, Hope, Charity, "being present", "quiet", and "being together". Oh, and one of them suggested "Easter eggs" - I'm starting to worry about him. They even identified the parish priest (by name) as taking on the role of Christ in explaining the Scriptures and breaking bread.

At every stage I queried their answers, "Do we need that? Can we manage without it?" They conceded that a church and an altar were not strictly necessary (private houses and tents will both do at a pinch, or a table or any other flat surface - one of them remembering Mass at camp); all the rest they considered non-negotiable. When I queried whether the Pope was strictly necessary to Eucharistic celebration one of them got quite indignant (a boy with an Italian surname; how relevant might that be?). Even Luke's account of the disciples returning from Emmaus mentions Simon! I wasn't expecting a bunch of brainstorming 11-year-olds to come up with "No Mass without Rome", and I'm sure the course designers would be pretty surprised too.

More soberingly, two of them (four years after First Communion) claimed never to have heard that Christ is present in the Eucharist. I wish I could assume it was just because they hadn't been paying attention.

Come Wednesday it's Bible study in the parish again: the Cleansing of the Temple. The literal meaning aside, Bede sees it as the cleansing of worldly concerns from the Temple of the Holy Spirit (probably not just Bede, but Bede is certainly among those who so consider it). Perfect for Lent.
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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why This Waste?

Long Catholic blog rant. If you really want to read it, click on the link at the bottom of the post.

Before Mass this morning I attended a talk about John's Gospel. The talk itself was very interesting, but not what prompts this post. In the course of it the priest (a Jesuit provincial) referred to John's account of the pound of ointment poured out over Our Lord's feet, and Judas's objection to it "Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?"

He said (I translate freely while quoting from memory), "Judas had got behind what we might call the Jesus project - a world of justice and peace - but had not developed a loving relationship with Jesus himself" - and contrasted this with what we know of Peter and John.

This jogged something in my mind. One of the blogs I read so regularly that it's listed in the sidebar is written by a parishioner of the parish of Our Lady of the Rosary in Blackfen, on the outer fringes of London's estuary sprawl into Kent. Anybody who regularly reads British Catholic blogs, or the Tablet, will be aware that a couple of weeks ago the Tablet took it upon itself to have a go at her parish priest for saying one Sunday Mass not only in Latin but according to the old missal (which the Pope said a year or two ago could now be done without seeking special permission from the bishop every time). This is alongside a Saturday evening Mass, a Sunday morning family Mass, and a Sunday evening hymnless Mass all in English, so really it looks as though every taste is catered for, but some folk seem to be offended that anything "preconciliar" should happen in an ordinary parish at all, and this is music to the Tablet's ears (I used to read my mother's copies of the Tablet fairly regularly, because they were in the house, and am grateful that, indirectly and without their knowledge, they made it possible for me to spend half a year teaching English at a junior seminary in Malawi; these days I just give it the occasional glance while waiting for old books to be brought out of the strongroom in the Theology faculty library, if L'Osservatore Romano is already taken).

What another blogger I regularly read, in an alternative view from across the estuary, has dubbed "the tradosphere" (a portmanteau of "traditionalists" and "blogosphere") was briefly in an uproar about the Tablet's "hatchet job" (the wikipedia page was even "semiprotected" to stop a rash of hostile editing). My own experience of the "old Mass" (it's the same Mass, of course, always new and aways ancient, but you know what I mean) has never been encouraging - having an avid celebrant promise that “the Mass our martyrs died for” won’t take over fifteen minutes and you don’t actually have to listen to any of it, does nothing to endear the form; nor does being told that floods, famines and earthquakes could have been averted by people receiving communion without touching it with their hands - but I certainly got a great deal out of the way the Oratorians said Mass in Oxford, following the missal of Pope Paul VI in Latin and with a gentle, careful, painstaking devotion that I (perhaps mistakenly) mentally associate with Newman; and I can well believe that there are those who derive the same sort of benefit from the "preconciliar" missal when it's not gabbled through in an undertone.

I hadn't blogged about this because it's really none of my business (or the Tablet's either, for that matter), but one thing about the article did bother me, in a niggling, sub-conscious sort of way, and this morning's talk brought what it was into focus. It was the mention of "complaints about their priest’s refusal to support Cafod, [and] his expenditure on traditional vestments". Never mind the fact that collections do go to other charities, or that the vestments are often salvaged or hand-me-downs, really it only changes three letters of one word: "Why was not this vestment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?"

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Saturday, February 28, 2009

First Sunday of Lent

I've given up blogging and facebook forLent, but Sundays are always feastdays, and I intend to celebrate that fact unfailingly.

Lenten reading so far: Mike Aquilina, The Mass of the Early Christians. Very readable, very clearly arranged, and with very short excerpts, it's making me rethink how I'd organise a projected European Identities: A Historical Sourcebook (were I ever to get the go-ahead from a publisher to write the blasted thing). More than that, it's giving me a much clearer appreciation of how ancient some attitudes are that I've always associated with the Tridentine Church and thought of as personal preferences (mostly personal preferences that I share, but have never wanted to press on others). Note to self: must read more Church Fathers.

For reading out loud at bed-time: Thomas a Kempis, De Navolging van Christus. In jonge taal hertaald door Mink De Vries. That is, the Imitation of Christ in a fairly free translation into contemporary colloquial Dutch. Number one daughter is surprisingly unkeen (and it's not as though I'm going to force anyone to listen to it); number one son is surprisingly keen, but in a very understated, not-wanting-to-show-it sort of way that warms the heart. Is it just me being English, or would any parent delight in a child that showed reserve?

Teaching about the end of the British Empire last Tuesday I was amazed to discover that most of my class, second-year undergraduates (so in the 19-21 age range) didn't have any idea what Apartheid was. Even taking into account that most of them would have been just born when it ended, one has to ask: what do they teach them in these schools?

And having just got back from an afternoon at the zoo, I realise I'm missing the first of the planned monthly Taizé prayer meetings in the Salesian house near here. Ack! This is what comes of having the first days of Lent coincide with the half-term holiday.
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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lenten retreat

I'm fasting from blogging for Lent (that is, I'm laying off my personal blog; I'll be updating the catechesis blog and the course blog).

For daily Lenten reflections from the Dominicans, go here.
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Friends and "Facebook Friends"

In the typical "chain of mirrors" effect of clicking from link to link on blogs and google, I've been reflecting on this reflection on the Pope's reflections on Facebook. And it has to be said: since signing up for Facebook I've extended my range of "Facebook friends" considerably - even to include two people I've never met but who are friends of friends.

But this warning note is worth heeding: We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship.

Most of my "friends" on Facebook are acquaintances from college and former students - people I certainly want to keep in touch with, but not at the expense of old and valued friendships with people not on Facebook, whom I have made precious little effort to contact of late (my slothful nature following the path of least resistance as water flows down hill). And now one of my brothers is here talking about his trip to Vietnam, and I'm trying to finish a blog post before listening, just so as not to have to save it and finish it later. OK, I think we can agree I've got a problem. Perhaps I've just identified what I should be giving up for Lent.
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Translation frolics

It's been a while since I last posted a story of translation-related hilarity; so here's a new one. Dictionaries: never leave home (or the police station) without one!
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Thursday, February 19, 2009

New essay just out

The complementary copies arrived a few days ago: Catholic Communities in Protestant States: Britain and the Netherlands, c.1570-1720. One of the essays that the volume contains, "The Southern Netherlands Connection: Networks of Support and Patronage", is by no means the best, but is drawn to your attention solely as having been written by me.

It's about the way that the area that's now Belgium (plus a bit around Lille and Douai that the French nicked in the 1660s) served as the single most important point of contact with Catholic Europe for the Mission Churches of, as you have no doubt already guessed, Britain and the Netherlands - back in the days when it was illegal to do anything vaguely Catholic in these Protestant states (not, we hasten to add, that it was illegal to be Catholic - that was fine; it was just illegal to do Catholic stuff, or to be a Catholic priest, or to help a Catholic priest in any way). There were English and Scottish seminaries in Douai, Irish and Dutch seminaries in Leuven; refugees in positions at the Brussels court, in the Army of Flanders, and in the chapters of several Belgian churches; exile convents and monasteries (only one of them Dutch, but then the Dutch could happily join Flemish monasteries - and eminent priors in historic houses like Affligem or Sint-Pieters were Northerners); government subsidies for individuals and institutions; diplomatic pressure on behalf of Catholic minorities; special exemptions from the laws on publishing for the production of anonymous and pseudonymous books for export. Probably other things too, that escape me. Anyway, I'm particularly pleased with this publication because of the circumstances in which it came about: it derives from a paper I gave at the Anglo-Dutch Historical Conference in 2006. Possibly only people who do research in Anglo-Dutch history can know what that means. Oh, and the picture on the cover is a Dutch painting of a Catholic family picnic (complete with ruined monastery).
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The rose of last summer

As I sit here housebound (if not quite bedridden) by flu, the urge seizes me to share this view of our garden in a happier season. It was taken last summer by a friend who was visiting. He has some sort of a trick camera - the picture shows little of the evidence of procrastination and neglect that are such obvious features of the garden when seen with the naked eye. (And yes, the plant in the middle foreground is indeed our long-suffering, much-transplanted Christmas tree.)
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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blackfriars Pub

Well, it turns out there's not just one Irish pub in Louvain-la-Neuve, there are at least two. And one of them is attached to the Dominican hall of residence. Last night I spent an hour there waiting for the start of a talk given by the head of the Jesuit Refugee Service Belgium. The talk was all in French, and to my delight and surprise I understood all of it (but not, by any means, all of the Q&A that followed).
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Sunday, February 15, 2009

By God sir, so you have!

This afternoon number one son watched Waterloo. I watched part of it with him, towards the end, including the immortal exchange:
Uxbridge: By God sir, I've lost my leg!
Wellington: By God sir, so you have!

Which of course prompted the question, "Did that *really* happen?"

So what could I do but whip out the laptop and look up Uxbridge on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography? It's certainly really reported to have happened - and much more to my surprise: the first articulated wooden leg (rather than plain old "peg leg") was crafted to replace the missing limb!

So, having shared my bit of Sunday night trivia, that's it for tonight.
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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

urgent appeal

I know I don't get many readers, but is there any chance that the two (or three?) of you could get on over to this blog and follow the instructions to petition against the imminent deportation of a well-integrated asylum-seeker?

UPDATING to add: Don't forget to include your full name and address in any email you might send on the unfortunate's behalf (if you're neither living in Britain nor British living abroad, it might not mean much anyway - but then again it might).

UPDATING AGAIN to add: Well, the deportation order was stopped, so the decision can be appealed. More information here.
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Honour system

There's an Irish pub in Louvain-la-Neuve (of course - where is there not?) and I popped in this lunchtime for a quick coffee to buck me up before spending two hours talking about Beveridge, Butler and Bevan. The decor includes bookshelves piled, higgledy=piggledy, with old books - mostly novels I've never heard of by authors whose names mean nothing to me, but also an accounts book for a business in Belfast in the 1910s, some history books, and a biography of John XXIII produced during his lifetime. The effect is rather as though someone had emptied a couple of boxes of their gran's books all in a pile. And among them was a 1938 edition of Murder in the Cathedral (first published 1935).

My late 1980s Faber paperback edition, full of marginal and interlinear notes for A-level English Literature, looks considerably tattier than this third edition hardback, so I asked at the bar: "Would you be willing to sell me one of the books?"
Reply: "They're not for sale, they're for decoration."
Question (holding up Murder in the Cathedral): "So you wouldn't be willing to let me buy this off you?"
Reply: "No, sorry. But you can borrow it if you promise to bring it back. Or another old book to take its place."

And the deal was done.
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Sunday, February 8, 2009


"But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come [considering the wickedness and corruption of the world]: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh." (Matthew 18:6-7)

Another's words or deed may be the cause of another's sin in two ways, directly and accidentally. Directly, when a man either intends, by his evil word or deed, to lead another man into sin, or, if he does not so intend, when his deed is of such a nature as to lead another into sin: for instance, when a man publicly commits a sin or does something that has an appearance of sin. On this case he that does such an act does, properly speaking, afford an occasion of another's spiritual downfall, wherefore his act is called "active scandal." One man's word or deed is the accidental cause of another's sin, when he neither intends to lead him into sin, nor does what is of a nature to lead him into sin, and yet this other one, through being ill-disposed, is led into sin, for instance, into envy of another's good, and then he who does this righteous act, does not, so far as he is concerned, afford an occasion of the other's downfall, but it is this other one who takes the occasion according to Romans 7:8: "Sin taking occasion by the commandment wrought in me all manner of concupiscence." Wherefore this is "passive," without "active scandal," since he that acts rightly does not, for his own part, afford the occasion of the other's downfall.

(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2a 2ae, q. 43, 1, ad 4)

And there's a line from one of Flannery O'Connor's letters that I'll post when I find it again.
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The mind is a funny thing

Taught my first class in Louvain-la-Neuve today (course description here).

For about half an hour before class started, there was a tune going through my head. It was only afterwards that I could put my finger on what it was:

The mind is a funny thing.
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Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Vote with your body": must try that

One afternoon a couple of years ago (after sitting in on a seminar on Husserl: a namedrop that will set the tone) I was enjoying a coffee on the terrace of a café just outside the gates of Cardinal Mercier's Higher Institute of Philosophy, and chatting to some American philosophy students. I'd bought an anthology of Dorothy Day's writings that morning, and spotting it one of them recommended Utah Phillips to my attention.

Although I'm drowning in translations and lecture prep at present, I did want to share these snippets off youtube, fruits of my just-before-bed substitute for television (which is becoming just too dire to contemplate). Two years ago there was only the hilarious Moose Turd Pie: there's been a Utah Phillips explosion on youtube since.

"If Dorothy Day would be standing right here on this stage now, that wonderful woman, if she was standing right here and looking at you with those piercing black eyes, I know exactly what she'd say because I've heard her say it ..."

And a 20th-century folksong, The Trooper's Lament:

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

National Treasure number 83 ...

from the National Museum of Korea, otherwise known as "Pensive Bodhisattva", has been in Brussels for the past few months, in an exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts (a.k.a. "Bozar") that a friend of mine did the design for (which in this case meant putting nothing but explanatory text on the walls, and displaying the objects in a series of cunningly built and arranged vitrines). She sent me tickets for the opening, but something came up (I can't even remember what now), and tomorrow is the last day of the show, so it was really now or never. There are some marvelous things on display, but most stunning is undoubtedly the famous NT83. The curl of the fingers and the toes, the curve of the back and the shoulders, the folds of drapery below, the smoothness of the torso above, and the warm glow of the bronze, with the posture conveying alertness and introspection at once (and to think the whole thing is a lump of metal!) - the effect is a captivating combination of fluidity and fixedness. It really is one of the great masterpieces of world art.

The picture above was put on flickr by user pravin8; I think it can be reproduced with attribution, but if I'm wrong, let me know and I'll replace the copy with a link. There's a better photo, but from a less interesting angle, here. As so often (always?) pictures can't even begin to convey the impact of the work of art itself. The piece is best seen full-front and slightly from below (which meant sitting on the floor).

In the exhibition as a whole I was surprised at the amount of iron and granite on display - compared to (say) bronze and marble - but this reflects my ignorance of Korean arts and crafts. I was also disappointed that the sutras and suchlike were either calligraphic or block-printed. Just about the one thing I did know about Korean arts and crafts is that they invented cast-metal moveable type, so it would have been nice to see a specimen.
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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coldest cold-snap in 30 years

And the first time the village pond has frozen over in 18 years (or so I hear - I've only lived here for eight!)
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"We Three Kings of Orient Are"

No, not really. But the beauty of a very parochial society is that local customs vary somewhat, so after singing out the old year in one village, the children can amass a whole other pile of loot by "King Singing" in another village at Epiphany. I suggested the four of them could be three kings and a star - but number one son insisted they were three kings and a camel.

Like English carols, Three Kings songs can be used to raise money for good causes, as well as to accumulate sweet stuff. The kids preparing for the formal renewal of their baptismal vows, as a preliminary to the Confirmation course, braved the cold to raise money for the projects of local hero "Bishop Bert", whose vocational training for AIDS orphans has inspired our number one daughter to various money-raising exploits of her own.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Liturgical oases

On the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, a young Salesian (the first priest I've met in a long time who's actually younger than I am!) said Mass in the next parish along - with (almost) nothing left out, nothing put in, and with great devotion. Just a few hours earlier he'd been disc jockey at a New Year's party.

More than ever, I'm starting to think we need a "Society of Pope Paul VI", dedicated to preserving and promoting the Ordinary Rite of the Latin Church in the face of mind-numbing (and occasionally heart-breaking) attempts to make it more "relevant". So much New Age blather attracts people looking for transcendence, while the most transcendent fact imaginable is being disguised as a combination of sing-along and pep talk.

I hope this doesn't come across as grumpy, or whining, or controversial, because really I feel happier and more hopeful than I have in a long time.
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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Taizé in Brussels: New Year's Eve

I had vaguely hoped that after singing out the old year, the children might like to go and meet some Missionaries of Charity, or hear a Serbian or Congolese choir, but they stubbornly insisted on resting, dragon-like, on the piles of sweets they’d amassed. Taking reluctant children to public events is not something we have good experiences with, so we stayed in for the afternoon - again failing to take advantage of any of the edifying encounters laid on in Brussels for the Taizé youth meeting.

New Year’s Eve there was to be a peace vigil in a neighbouring parish till midnight, followed by a “festival of nationalities”, in which the foreign visitors to the two parishes would share some aspect of their culture with one another. As the pilgrims arrived back in the parish they gathered in the primary school, and we went en masse, bearing flaming torches, and singing Laudate omnes gentes part of the way, from our parish church to neighbouring Sint Teresia (not untypically for Belgium, the distance between the two parish churches is less than a mile). It was certainly a sight to lift the spirits on a misty midwinter night, particularly with half a dozen of the pilgrims almost literally juggling flaming torches, mobile phones (for texting New Year’s greetings back home), and assorted paraphernalia for the festival.

The booklet of instructions provided to parish organizers by Taizé had said the festival should be alcohol-free. At one of the preparatory meetings one of the brothers had muttered something about a single glass of champagne for each participant being acceptable. Well, Taizé might be in Burgundy, but we’re in beer-brewing country, so the concession of “a single glass of champagne” was universally taken by the parish organizers to mean “or a glass or two of beer” - especially when a local brewer offered to provide tins of the world-famous cherry beer (or kriek) for free. A local baker offered bread, a local delicatessen wholesaler offered whatever was close to its sell-by date (salami, chicken and tuna spreads, mortadella), and a local Vietnamese restaurant offered spring rolls. There was far more than could be finished (how much can even a 20-year-old eat after midnight?) and on New Year’s morning the copious leftovers went to a homeless shelter in Brussels.

The entertainments laid on by the participants were culturally instructive: a dance I’d seen in an American sitcom, described as “the bunny hop”, is apparently a Romanian folkdance. All the animators put their best foot forward (the Romanians, all joking aside, by far the best) and a good time was had by all. That is to say, I was caught in the melancholy reflection that for the first time since getting married I spent the turn of the year out of my wife's company; and a young Croat looked on with boredom at the whole proceeding; and three drunken young Poles had to be barred from the premises for part of the time; but these are minor exceptions.

After the singing and dancing of Southerners and Slavs, the proceedings were brought to a close with some good old northern pensiveness: in traditional Swedish fashion, the participants from Gotland greeted the New Year with a recitation of Edvard Fredin’s translation of Canto 106 from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.

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Taizé in Brussels: a blog in Dutch

I'll try to get something about days 3, 4 and 5 down later. For now, a link to a blog (in Dutch) about the five days (four nights) of having young pilgrims in the house.

Updating a day later (and changing the time stamp): there's also a video of brief "witness" from a host family (in Dutch) and from some young pilgrims (in English, about 1 minute 30 seconds in). The pictures alone will convey all the essential details.
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