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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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In this modern world, where almost an entire population contrives to deceive itself on  life’s more important matters, the ‘news’  tends to be boring and repetitive – not to say, predictable.  We have grown accustomed to reading a headline that announces “Advanced Technology Centre for Leamington Spa” – and to click the spot only to discover that yet another ‘internet awareness’ course for three-year-olds has opened ; or spotting another headline, “Government Crackdown on Hard Drugs” – and then to read that again the pensioners of Nether Wiltington are to be discouraged from making nettle tea (on health grounds, of course).  As if computing were the only kind of advanced technology, and as if the pensioners of Nether Wiltington were the only people to be hooked on nettles.

I wonder that anybody takes the trouble to buy a newspaper nowadays.  But things are improving.  There is real news in the air today.  Something we never knew before.  The Great British People really have been deceived ; and now, thanks to the Institute of Education they really know it.  And they are bound to be angry.

The august Institute has, it seems, unearthed the disturbing fact that some faith schools are religiously exclusive. Believe it or not, in some Roman Catholic schools, more than 90 per cent of children were found to be Christian and in some Jewish schools all pupils were Jewish.

Just how disturbing can a news story get?  What does it say of the state of the nation when schools begin to practise what their titles and charters advertise?  What kind of a mess are we in when the beer is as described on the bottle?

The teachers’ unions and the socialist government are right now acting to put a stop to this untidy arrangement.  Should we be worried?  Would we worry if we had another Cromwell?

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Like everyone else, I’ve read much polemic against the admittedly offensive propaganda being pushed out by some Middle-easterners.  But what impressed me was the way that it is becoming common for people to steer close to rage against what they term the ‘religious indoctrination’ of children in Middle-Eastern places.  People even rage against ‘religious indoctrination’ in our own schools ; and that is worrying.

The general complaint seems to be that children ought to be told nothing whatever about their parents’ religion, but ought be left to ‘make up their own minds when they reach adulthood – or at least reach the age of reason.  So children should decide on matters of truth.  But surely this is silly. Have we forgotten what indoctrination really is?

What is indoctrination?  it’s nothing more sinister than the teaching of doctrines.  At school, I well remember being indoctrinated in the Times Table : in Mental Arithmetic : in parsing sentences : in the Kings and Queens of Britain : in Geography : and in how to use a knife and fork.   Later I was indoctrinated in the laws of Physics and Chemistry, and so on.   And then having to learn by rote about fifty Trigonometrical Identities (few of which I understood).

I do not remember, ever, being invited to give my own opinions on these matters.  I do remember being gently punished once or twice for failing to apply Newton’s Doctrine on Gravitation or Avogadro’s Hypothesis, or some such.  And had to re-write a whole essay once because I made a single spelling mistake.

On the other hand, I received very little by way of indoctrination in religion.  I don’t recall ever being even mildly chastised for failing to list the Ten Commandments correctly, and nobody ever required me to memorise even half of the 198 Laws of Leviticus.

We were examined rigorously on the doctrines of maths, physics, English Language, and so on ; but nobody obliged us to be examined on religion.  But they did oblige us to live by the second Commandment ; thus in a sense, we were subject to continuous assessment on that topic.  If they had not done this to us, I am pretty sure we would have remained the little savages that we were.  We would, in fact, never have reached the stage of reason.

So it is undoubtedly true that in the Middle East, from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal, children generally are educated to believe and obey certain doctrines.  And it is also true that this policy has had some baneful consequences.  But the fault does not lie in the principle of doctrine itself ; it lies in the false principles of false doctrines.  And even then, not all that is taught is false.  And even then, not all that is false is directly harmful.

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Although I am not an enthusiast for psychoanalysis, I do admire Freud’s general theory of psychology.  It has ‘the ring of truth’ about it.

One of Freud’s major arguments is that people will avoid doing difficult things, if they can, and do something easier instead.  We always tend towards what he calls the ‘pleasure principle’ and avoid ‘unpleasure’.  So, for example, if one knows that one has to do something unpleasant, like telling the boss some home-truths, one tends to put it off for as long as possible ‘because one is too busy’ ; in other words one finds other things to do instead.

Well, we all know this ‘putting-off’ from our own experience.  But Freud’s insight was to observe that people also do this putting-off quite unconsciously.  In other words, there are things we ought to do but are not aware that we ought to do them ; and we fill our time doing quite unnecessary things instead.  Freud called these unnecessary activities ‘displacement activities’.  The necessary activity has been displaced by an unnecessary one.  By this means, we achieve peace of mind, by not being bothered by unpleasant thoughts about something that we really must do one day.

It’s interesting to see ‘displacement activities’ being used apart from the close and sometimes rather dreary context of Freudian psycho-dynamic theory.  The neurosis of everyday life, as it were.

Christopher Howse seems to suggest that all people are seeking some kind of religious faith, but that they find it difficult to find the psychological courage to maintain their quest. Therefore they do something else as an easier substitute.  As Freud might say, they displace the aim of their search for faith away from religion and on to other aims which, they hope, will give them the same satisfaction. And, of course, all this is performed unconsciously.

This theory is probably true. How else to explain why so many modern people do a lot of “time-filling – television, shopping, driving, passive music-listening, browsing on food, surfing the internet, leafing over magazine pages, following soaps, living vicariously through celebrities” – much of which is apparently pointless?

But, if many non-religious people may be said to seek a faith in what are essentially material comforts – or rather in the comfort that material things can bring – then the same may be said of many modern people who vaguely think of themselves as being religious.

It seems to me that people today are shifting the definition of religion away from a set of definite and difficult doctrines and towards a flexible set of vague humanistic values which are designed to bring emotional comfort to the believer. Religion is becoming a kind of therapy in much the same way as ‘retail’ is a kind of therapy.

But I’m doubtful whether merely learning to feel good about oneself can provide a firm footing for faith. If faith brings peace of mind, and if peace of mind brings an essentially serene temperament then, judging by the levels of unrest in our self-indulgent society, perhaps my doubts are justified

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Welcome to my blog.

Whether you came through my door by choice or by chance, I am glad to ‘meet’ you.  Of course, I hope you enjoy your visit and hope you’ll come again often.  But that will depend on how interested you are in my opinions and (I suppose) how much you agree with them and on how much you want to argue with them.

Who am I?

Just an idler, really.  Nowadays I do far more watching of the world than wrangling with it.

Why do I write?

I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember ; but time and chance conspired against me in my working days.  One has to earn a living with whatever talents one has – and I have no illusions about being a talented writer!  But now I have the occasions and the opportunities ; and, actually, I do feel enthusiastic about a number of things which did not seem so important once upon a time.

Very well, I admit that I’m touched by a certain vanity.  But, more than that, I find writing helps to straighten my thoughts in a way that casual discussion does not.  Didn’t Bacon have something to say about that?

What do I write about?

Dare I say that I am fairly eclectic?  In another time and maybe another place I might have been an essayist – not that I would or could have challenged an Emerson or a Swift.  But essays nowadays are called blog-posts, is that not so?  And we each have a licence to do it, no?  So I write about a range of things.  A blog-post usually starts with an idea and then follows it through ; it’s a kind of meditation, and often I have no notion of where it will end up.

So, what do I write about?   My chief interests are refined reading, rough gardening, rough carpentry, rough philosophy and rough writing.  But it’s the writing  ‘about‘ that matters, for I try not to be too focused and too technical ; unless, that is, it’s a technical subject.  I have no ‘message’.  If I write about politics, psychology, beliefs, education, history, or fly fishing – it is not to persuade ; it is to open up discussion and stimulate ideas.

What’s important to me?

Nothing and everything.  How’s that for a Gnostic answer?

How important are your comments?

Very important.  What is the point of communicating unless it’s a two-way thing?  I might add that your comments might be important to you, too ; for why read unless you have an opinion on what you have read?  (And no opinion is too slight to communicate, nor too polemical.)  So all comments, however brief, are welcome.  If you can keep them legal, decent and honest, I will try to respond to each one.  And people tell me that I am very polite. 🙂

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