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Archive for January, 2012

I have only visited a convent once ; it was in the middle-north of England where the friend of a friend was serving.  I was fairly young at the time and knew next to nothing of religious life, so I had only a jumble of ideas of what to expect.  My first surprise was that they let me into the convent at all ; I had half expected that I would be required to wait outside while my companion went in to chat with her old school-friend.  But, in fact, there is a homely and comfortable reception area made for the purpose of entertaining all kinds of visitors ; and we were both made very welcome.

I began to wonder what on earth I could contribute to this meeting of old friends.  Are nuns allowed to speak to men?  Or even to listen to them?  I prepared to make my own vow of silence for the duration but I needn’t have bothered, for the sisters were only too eager to chat ; not, I hasten to add, out of a wish to discover news of the wicked world beyond their walls, but out of simple friendliness mixed (I think) with a charming politeness.  They understood my dilemma.

The talk was of many things, but mainly about news of the girls’ mutual acquaintances ; but this broadened by degrees until even I thought of something to say.  The nuns spoke mainly about their work, which reminded me that even they had to earn their living.  All this was unexceptional.  And there was absolutely no talk of religion or vocations or the good life.

Perhaps it was that delightful visit of forty years ago that silently prompted me to buy a DVD which explored further the life of the religious.  It concerns the lives of the sister at the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Notting Hill ; in the heart of London. It is called No Greater Love, which reminds us of Jesus’ words that there can be no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.  And that is what these girls do ; they devote every minute of their lives to the betterment of the world and its people – their friends.

Of course, a worldly cynic might say that there is no great sacrifice in retreating from the world in order to work and pray.  Some might even say that it is abandoning the harsh world so as to lead a comfortable life ; and is it possible to deny that some, at least, have done that?

But when you consider more closely the training that the sisters have been through, it is not easy to be so dismissive ; for their transition to religious life, and then their everyday lives, are far from easy by our standards.  I received an insight into this when I watched another film, The Nun’s Story,  in which we meet Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch in leading roles.  This film is based on a true story and, as far as I can tell, is pretty much true to form.

It concerns a Belgian girl who comes from a prosperous family and whose father is a leading medical doctor.  We follow her from her decision to decline a comfortable life, through her pains at telling her family of her decision, on to her fairly terrifying training, and further to her years in Africa as a nurse.  We also see her assigned (to her disappointment) to escort a sick patient back to Belgium by sea ; she has no choice because she is the only nurse who has the necessary medical knowledge.

To her immense disappointment, she was to have no return to Africa and the patients she loved.  Being a nun, it seems, is the surest way of learning to cope with personal anguish ; of learning to find happiness through losing one’s self and one’s desires – in the service of a greater good.

The end of the story comes not in the safety of the convent.  And it comes as a surprise.

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Lives renewed

It’s good news for a British couple who won over £40million on the lottery, but I wonder about how it will change their lives.  Will the change really be for the better (no pun intended)?

I have read, at various times, how big winners have vowed that their new riches shall not make them wasteful or greedy.  They promise that they will continue to live in their modest house, keep working as usual, take normal holidays and, at most, indulge themselves in a few of life’s little luxuries.  All very well and good, we might think.  But it does disturb me that a wealthy person should hold his old job, which he no longer needs to maintain himself and his family, rather than resign it and give another person the chance to earn an honest living.  Likewise, isn’t it a little selfish to keep the old terraced house, when they could so easily make it available to a young couple who really need it?

Thoughts like these were going through my mind as I read a charming book about a 19thC parson.  He was not a wealthy man ; but he did know that, one day, he would inherit £2700 – not a great fortune even in those days ; but certainly enough to remove any acute financial anxieties he otherwise might have had.

As a curate, he was keen to have his own parish ; to be his own boss, as it were.  But the parish he greatly wished for – and which he might have successfully applied for – was beyond his means.  He had noticed how the run-down vicarage was constantly being fixed by carpenters, masons, tilers and so forth.  And the poor parson must have been at his wit’s end to keep the place habitable.

So the curate gave up on that idea.  He resigned his curacy (as his time was up) and lived at his parents’ expense while awaiting a new opportunity.

Well, the question arises, “What should the child of wealthy parents do to occupy his time?”  He would not have thought of taking a job, and thereby deprive a poor man of the chance of making a living.  He would not go into trade, for the same reason.  He might applied for another curacy ; but that would have deprived a promising newcomer.

So, he did the decent thing.  He simply made himself useful to other parishes, as well as his old one.  He was greatly respected and had many friends among both rich and poor alike.  He had saved lives, he had helped farmers with their labours, he had dug the gardens of poor widows, and he had given hope to many.  And he never took a shilling.

Perhaps the curate had read some of William Cobbett, who was a farmer, “Money,” he said, “Is like muck – no good unless it be spread.”  So the wealthy have a duty to spread their money ; to spend it wisely and to invest it honestly.

We might add that time also is for spreading ; for giving in charity ; for receiving with gratitude.

I don’t know what the lucky couple, who won the jackpot, will do with the aid of their fortune.  But I hope they don’t do anything vain, like hang on to their old jobs, their old house and their old habits.

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It’s strange how we seem to spend so much time either looking forward to the future or else remembering the past.  How often are we in the here-and-now?  Aristotle recommended that we take up the art of contemplation to remedy matters.  And who better to make that suggestion?

How to begin?  First, ensure that you will not be disturbed for the next fifteen minutes or so.  Then make yourself comfortable.  Close your eyes.

Contemplating, Aristotle said, is simply paying regard to a series of statements or ideas which are infallibly true.  They must be so, because if there is any doubt about the truth of a statement, then you will start thinking about it – and contemplation must involve no thinking.  It is just regarding, or ‘looking’ at ideas that come to mind.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well, try it and see.  Aristotle himself found that there are not very many of our notions that are truly infallible.  Like his masters, Socrates and Plato, he concluded that, while we have lots of opinions about the world, not much of what we know is truly true.

He began his exploration of contemplating something like this.

“I am a man.”  (Well, that’s not a bad start.)
“My name is Aristotle.”  (No!  The name my creator gave me is unknown to me.)
“People call me Aristotle.”  (That’s sort of OK)
“I live in Athens.”  (No.  Has this place always been known as Athens?  Will it for ever be called Athens?)
“I live in a city people now call Athens”  (OK)
“I am fifty years of age.”  (No.  I have no proof of my exact age ; I have only the opinions of others.)

…. and so on ….

And so he indeed went on.  And, as he went, he had to amend almost all his ideas about himself and the world ; he had to compromise on the exact truth ; he had to admit opinions under the guise of truths.

It’s awfully hard to live fully in the here-and-now.  Maybe that’s why my own thoughts turned back to school-days while I have been writing.  I remembered a puzzle that Mr Fryer set us all those years ago.  “You think that one plus one equals two, do you?”

“Of course!”  we replied.
“Well, arithmetic is a language,” he said, “And its meanings all depend on how you use it.”

To the blackboard ….. (and I hope I remember this right!) :

a = b
a+a = a+b
2a = a+b
2a-2b = a+b-2b
2(a-b) = a-b
2 = 1

Well, it took us a bit to work that one out (we were young and thought we knew everything).

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I have never been a great fan of television, but I have come to appreciate the availability of tv recordings ; in fact, I have a growing pile of dvd records which do much to brighten the winter days.  But I do wonder sometimes at the antics of the broadcasters.  The BBC, especially, seems to be very intent on some kind of political mission designed to change the ways in which we see ourselves.  It is not enlightening, I think.

A month or two ago I enjoyed watching an entire series of stories made by the BBC some years earlier.  It had the charming title Larkrise to Candleford.  It was really well-made and featured some accomplished actors and actresses.  Of course, it was not beyond criticism concerning some matters of fact, but that generally counts for little in fiction ; we tend to filter out such discrepancies in favour of enjoying the story.

The story is set in rural Oxfordshire in the late-ish nineteenth century ; an exciting time in which great changes were taking place, most undoubtedly good and some not so.  As well as the usual ‘human interest’ aspects, the story is very much concerned with how ordinary people were adjusting to those changes – and in some cases influencing them ; in particular the people of the hamlet of Larkrise and of the small town of Candleford

But there were some puzzles in the plot.  For example, the hamlet and the town were separated by about seven miles ; and yet people would pop off on foot from one place to the other at the drop of a hat on some trivial errand or other ; as if they were going to the corner shop.  But, even in that great age of walking, working folk did not make a round trip of fourteen miles on a whim.

Most of the characters in the stories are memorable, as one would expect in fiction.  One that particularly struck me was the country rector.  He was widower, quite ancient and stuffy, and with a bit of a posh accent as you might expect.  He was a dyed-in-the-wool, rabid Tory,  of course.  But he was also a deeply unpleasant man.  One of his rather pious parishioners even referred to him as a ‘brute’ and a ‘sadist’.  His daughter had been so suppressed by him that she could hardly show any personality at all, being almost crippled by shyness.

I thought all this rather odd, and rather BBC-ish, but not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility.

As if set to balance the dreadful rector, we had the village stonemason.  He was a right-on liberal with advanced political ideas ahead of their time.  His self-appointed task seems to have been to educate the locals out of their complacency and to lead them from serfdom.  He was so inflamed by the injustices of his world that he would risk everything to voice his complaints.  He was made to suffer in consequence.  A champion of the poor indeed.

It was the stonemason who wrote a very rude letter to the very top man at the Post Office in London, complaining that the poor people in his village had to pay an unreasonable sum to the Post Office merely to receive a telegram.  The reason for this surcharge was that the village was more than seven miles from the local post office ; hence the delivery costs had to be paid.  Indeed, such a charge on poor people was unjust.  At a time when a farm labourer was lucky to earn ten shillings a week, three shillings and sixpence was a heavy price for a telegram (which, by its nature, would require urgent attention on an important matter).

Well, I thought it was so very like the BBC to portray Victorian people in this way ; choosing the best and the worst to make its political points.  But then I remembered that the tv stories of Larkrise and Candleford are based on the recollections of a person who actually lived there ; the BBC series was an adaptation of her writings.  The story was not pure fiction.  So I bought Flora Thompson’s books – three of them under one cover.

What a surprise!  Miss Thompson’s recollections of the people she knew in her youth are very much at variance with the BBC’s interpretation of them.

The rector, it turns out, was actually very much respected in the parish ; and a welcome visitor in just about every household.  He was a personally charitable man who took his duties seriously. If he was a Tory, he certainly wasn’t a brutish and sadistic one.

And what about the right-on liberal, agnostic stonemason who fearlessly provoked the mighty Postmaster General to secure justice for his fellow villagers?  What about this David who challenged Goliath?  Well, actually, he didn’t.  It was the village innkeeper who did all that.  Ah, but the innkeeper was a nice devout Christian, you see.  And, to make matters worse, Miss Thompson explains that he was a Catholic.

Well, the BBC can’t have Christians (and especially Catholics) taking up the cause for the poor, can we?  So, the corporation just switches everything around.

There are a number of other serious discrepancies of a similar kind in the BBC series.

Why does all this matter?  We might ask, “Does the truth matter?”  Is it right to distort Miss Thompson’s recollections so as to make political and religious points?  We might bear in mind that these are real people.  Is it morally right to defame the dead rector?  to insult his daughter?  to deprive the dead innkeeper of his credits?

The BBC would argue that is right to do so.  After all, its politics are of foremost importance ; that is why it exists.  And, to the BBC, what is history if not something to be amended so as to augment its political message?  The reputations of dead individuals count for nothing at the BBC.

I can’t help asking, “What are the great weaknesses in the BBC’s arguments for a ‘liberal’, atheistic, socialistic society?”  Are those arguments so shaky that it is really necessary to lie about them and about the alternatives?  And can that atheistic, socialistic society long endure if it is based on lies and distortions?

And doesn’t the BBC insult its clients with such distortions?  Does it imagine that we are all fools?  Or does it imagine that only its poorer and less educated clients are fools?

Or could it be that the socialist/atheist/iconoclast factions are now so strong in our country that they just know that they can re-write history to their hearts’ content without fearing any opposition or serious criticism?

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I was just reading a book in which JRR Tolkien’s name cropped up, together with a few lines of his.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost or wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
And keeps the rags of lordship he once owned.

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.

….

We make still by the law in which we’re made

(JRR Tolkien)

These thoughts of his remind me of how far humanity has fallen in the last few hundred years, during which time so many people have been beguiled by the easy doctrines of physics (especially) that they have come to think of themselves as machines – biological machines, to be sure, but machines nevertheless.

Now it is true that there is much that is mechanical about a person – as a trip to the dentist will remind us ; but there is also so much more that is not mechanical.  For example, can consciousness be properly described in mechanical terms?  is love a mechanical process? is free will mechanical?

Tolkien here straightens our ideas, I think.

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