Sunday, 19 February 2017

Deep work, Sertillanges and the temptations of digital culture

What a difference three weeks make! Well, a small difference here and there. The guerre improbable, paix impossible state we achieved by mid-January seems to be rumbling on. Cardinal Mueller at least appears to want to stand on the right side of the question, even if for now it is only through TV interviews and the like.

One cannot help be drawn back to the landing site of Amoris Laetitia's unexploded bomb. I call it unexploded because whatever the crushed buildings and the crater beneath it, it has not yet done all the damage it can and probably will do. The latest rumours of bad-things-to-come include women deacons to mark the anniversary of the Reformation and Vatican III. The former I believe, the latter I find highly improbably. Still, Vatican II was improbable, so who can tell? If any pope since Paul VI is capable of organising the three ring circus of a universal council, it's Pope Francis.

All that being said, the question on my mind is more or less the same question as we always face: how do we bear fruit in a time of crisis? There is an awful effect of escalation in such moments that is as tempting as the original forbidden fruit. Let me take an example. What the pope is up to, according to my lights, is insufferable. I hardly need explain why here. But I cannot see how that could justify gulping down the name-calling, mouth-foaming wormwood that passes for commentary in some circles. Sure, Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of Vipers and Whitened Sepulchres. But he also knew everyman's inner thoughts and could walk on water. We are enjoined to come after the Lord or to be perfect as our Heavenly Father, but not to pretend we are the Lord or that we can dole out judgment and justice in the same way. Leave that to him. We can only hurt ourselves in so doing.

Yet, as I say, the real question is about how we bear fruit in a difficult time. Our first response these days is to be up-to-date on all the latest developments. It is the information age, or so it is labelled, and to be LinkedIn, Twittered and PM'ed seem as indispensable as breathing, eating and drinking. Every age lives crises through its own cultural matrices, and the glory and misfortune of our age is to live these things mostly through a social media feed.

Nevertheless, the crazier things get out there - the more barking mad the rumours of Francis's next stunt become, the more the ranks of AL's defenders swell - the calmer and saner we must all try to be. Living the crisis through the Internet seems inevitable because, well, how else can we get our information? That is true of course to some degree.

But the thing about the Internet, the thing that not enough people are yet prepared to admit, is that most of us live in the Internet as a swamp into which we are continually sucked, rather than as a river into which we dip for what we need. We are driven to open our feeds not as if we are sipping at tea cups, but gulping like hungry chicks after our parents' regurgitated food.  What we want to know may be important - rather like nourishment is important - but how we access it is suspect.

I have been thinking about this all the more after reading Cal Newport's Deep Work. Read it you should, putting aside the rather grinding self-interest that drives Newport. His starting point is simple. In an age where automisation and robotisation risk destroying major areas of the job market, only high-performing knowledge workers will be able to make themselves indispensable. So much for the self interest.

What follows is a wonderful exploration of how to restore the capacity for deep work in the age of social media. Newport, a computer scientist by profession, calls himself a digital minimalist and has all the latest psychological research on the nature and performance of attention at his fingertips. One of his key arguments - which he proves eloquently and convincingly for my tastes - is that if you want to work deeply, you have to get off digital media and stay off it most of the time. Email too needs a severe reining in, within the limits of your professional duties of course. The capacity of these technologies to disrupt and fragment attention is extraordinary.

I feel daft writing this now on a blog. Am I not calling my readers to precisely this kind of fragmentation? Well, no! But we are all in danger of it. Let everyone look to their own conscience in this regard. One correlation I draw from Newport's cautious remarks on digital withdrawal is this: if you have to get on the Internet, don't do it with avidity. Go in, get your information and get out before the swirl of hyperlink currents sweeps your attention into a literal cloud of unknowing.

One of the most interesting references in Newport's book is to Fr Sertillanges's The Intellectual Life.  I must say I was taken aback to find a reference to Sertillanges in a book by an MIT galactico, but there you have it. Sertillanges was a French Dominican of the generation of Garrigou Lagrange or perhaps slightly older. His What Jesus Saw from the Cross is reasonably well known. How Newport came across him I have no idea. Nevertheless, it struck me as fascinating that in order to find an intellectual path out of the attentional chaos of digital culture, Newport should alight on a practitioner in the Thomistic tradition.

There is a tantalizing dilemma for us all in such lessons. We uber-Catholics are unconsciously proud of our Catholic heritage and roots, as well as jumping mad about the current wave of ecclesiastical vandalism. Yet in some ways we hardly make room for our own heritage. We ought to be the first to abandon our routers and smart phones, and yet we find in the Internet a crucial source of information and encouragement that we do not fight alone.

My sense of this question is that somehow it cannot last. Baptizing the Internet may turn out in the end to have been as misguided as those people who tried to turn rave parties into Christian services.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Church's Cold War

I was reading today about Raymond Aron's post-war work Le Grand Schisme. Aron was a leading French intellectual who stood not for any extreme but rather for a secular (in the French sense), moderate consensus. This was at a time when many of France's leading intellectuals were either tainted by association with the hard-right, Nazi-collaborating Vichy government of the war years or else cosy-ing up to Soviet Communism like the myopic Jean-Paul Sartre. In any case, Aron came up with one of the formulae that helped define the Cold War at the end of the 1940s, and it went by way of this delightful juxtaposition: paix impossible, guerre improbable.

The Cold War made for an impossible peace. Many of the protagonists on either side of the Iron Curtain, at least when Aron forged his expression, were resolved to oppose implacably the ideas and efforts of their enemies. Let's indulge in a little schematisation for the sake of brevity. The Soviet bloc wanted to see the proletarian revolution spread everywhere; the West, on the other hand, having just defeated one dictator, were not about to embrace another dictator of a different stripe. Paix impossible.

And yet at the same time it was unlikely they would actually go to war. Indulge in a little skirmish via client states? Yes. Agitate and aggravate the other side? Well, of course. But actually initiate the steps for an all-out conflict? Not likely. The costs were too high in reality, and nobody who had survived the Second World War would have been inclined to disagree with the virtues of an uneasy peace. Or, in this case, a state of improbable war.

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Having read Aron's formula, I could not help but reflect on the post-dubia situation we now find ourselves in. Is this not a case of paix impossible? Those who have doubts about Amoris Laetitia are not looking for the correction of its punctuation. The ambiguities of the text raise questions that touch the very heart of a handful of divinely revealed or Church-proclaimed doctrines. On the other side, no liberal is going to want to give up on the concessions that have just been squeezed through the Vatican approval machine. We know very well that they have no intention of stopping at the facilitating of irregular unions. All the other plethora of irregular situations (and invincibly ignorant consciences) must also taste of God's mercy so long and so wrongly denied them.

But then we also are in a moment of guerre improbable.  Francis is not going to make martyrs out of the four dubia-bearing cardinals. He still reeks enough of traditional pietism to offend large swathes of the liberal intelligentsia. At the same time he will offer no clarification that states clearly where he stands on the question or, better still, what the Church firmly and truly believes.

On the other side, I just do not believe that the four cardinals will do anything beyond offering a 'formal correction' that will probably be of the mildest kind. Cardinal Muller's recent intervention has gone some way towards spiking their guns. What kind of formal correction could carry immediate, practical weight - we know it will have theological substance but that is not the same thing - without the backing of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? This might not pertain if there are a substantial number of cardinals who associate themselves with a formal correction, but the fear of schism will ensure their numbers are small.

No, to me, it looks set not for a cathartic denouement with movie-style resolutions and relief all round, but rather a long, slow burn of confusion; a state, as Aron said, of guerre improbable.

****

Paix impossible, guerre improbable.  Fasten your seat belts, but not because it is going to be a bumpy ride. More because it will be an interminable traffic jam, and we might just fall asleep at the wheel.

Monday, 16 January 2017

New acts of contrition

Dr Joseph Show on his blog has given us a new and updated act of contrition for the times. I rather like it:

'O my God, because thou art so good, I am not at all sorry that I have offended thee, and with the help of thy grace I will offend thee again and again.'

Here is my version, as bleak as it is brief: 

O my God, because I am so good, I cannot see how I have offended Thee, and thanks to this criterion of inculpability, I will not sin again.


What can I say but St Pascal, pray for us?

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Kessler syndrome and the urge to come down from the cross

I'm running out of superlative adjectives and metaphors to describe how bowel-cringingly awful this current period in the Church actually is. This week offered us something like a New Year Special Big Mac with Abomination of Desolation Bonanza on Ice. If Ferrari manufactured ecclesiastical crises, this would be one of them.

Given the evil times, those of you who have not yet embraced Flat Earthism might be interested to learn about the Kessler Syndrome. As we know, many satellites now orbit the globe at approximately 17, 000 mph. There is not a vast amount of metal in Low Earth Orbit but there is an increasing amount, and the stuff that gets decommissioned needs to be carefully monitored. So far so orbital.

In the 1970s, however, NASA scientist Donald Kessler wondered what would happen if one satellite collided into another and, as a result, debris from that collision then started triggering collisions with other satellites. On reflection, two immediate effects would arise. First, you would begin to get a cascade; a kind of chain reaction of collision and counter-collision, each one creating another new fissive strand. Second, all the earth-bound systems that depend on satellites would start breaking down. Kessler, I believe, was not so exercised by the latter problem since little did depend on satellite communications in the 1970s. These days, it would pose immense difficulties for communication technologies across the globe (not to mention spy networks!). Thus was born the Kessler Syndrome in which the cascade of colliding satellites in Low Earth Orbit achieved crisis levels of mutual destruction. One artist thought it might look like this.


Pretty, n'est-ce pas? Hagan-lio that, m'hearties!

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I only mention it because the news stories rolling in about you-know-what and you-know-who seem to me to be entering a Kessler Syndrome phase. No sooner do we hear about one dreadful story than another one appears in lurid technicolour, bouncing off the first with all kinds of consequences that are apparently unforeseen, though not necessarily unforeseeable.

For example, ten days ago we heard about three priests being dismissed from the CDF - apparently, three good ones. Then, early last week, Cardinal Muller gave a 'move-along-folks-nothing-to-see-here' kind of interview in which he admitted that the dubia were indeed dubia but that there was no danger to the faith in Amoris Laetitia. Just to prove there was 'no danger to the faith', the bishops of Malta then issued the most liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia yet proposed, and it was published for them in L'Osservatore Romano (so with apparent Vatican approval). There are only two bishops involved: Archbishop Scicluna of Malta and and Bishop Grech on the nearby island of Gozo. Yes, that is correct: there are two bishops involved, the combined populations of Malta and Gozo come to around 460,000 souls, and the bishops still had their letter published in L'Osservatore Romano.

Malta isn't exactly a geo-political giant on the world stage but there are still two factors about this that are immediately disheartening. First, Malta is an iconically Catholic culture where the people are overwhelmingly Catholic and, by all accounts, overwhelmingly devout. You have to hope we will hear vociferous objections from the island itself, but if so, we haven't heard them yet. We need to give it time. The second immediately disheartening thing is that Archbishop Scicluna is supposed to be one of the good guys - a leading figure in Rome in the investigation of abuser priests before his elevation to Malta.

The Maltese letter has already been gutted and filleted by Ed Peters. Yet its publication in L'Osservatore Romano gives it an importance that it would otherwise not have. Maybe I'm wrong here and L'Osservatore Romano publishes the internal pastoral documents of the Maltese church on a regular basis. I somehow doubt it though. What this publication looks like is a papal pat on the shoulder for a document which contains such egregious gems as the following:

If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351)

I'm no theologian and far be it from me to carp but look at the utter contradiction. How - just how? can anybody help? - can an informed and enlightened conscience manage to acknowledge that they are at peace with God when they are living in an objectively sinful state? To think one is at peace with God when living with someone who is not your spouse is neither informed nor enlightened. It is precisely and in every sense of the terms deformed and unenlightened.

One of the things that is so bewildering about the letter is that it appears to lump all the difficult cases together. Those who are personally convinced their first marriage was not valid - a case still blocked from the sacraments by Familiaris consortio - are lumped in with those who were abandoned. What counts is that their consciences might not be guilty of serious sin if they acted under any of the following conditions:

ignorance, inadvertence, violence, fear, affective immaturity, the persistence of certain habits, the state of anxiety, inordinate attachments, and other psychological and social factors (see AL 302; CCC 1735, 2352). 

I can see that such conditions might mitigate sinfulness to some degree in the moment in which a sinful act was committed. But when that act has become a structural part of someone's way of life and when that person is fully informed of their duties, what then?

If this were not bad enough, the argument then follows that such couples might even continue to live as married persons. This is quite astonishing in its implications:

Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).

I'm really curious as to what constitutes greater harm than serious sin. This all reminds me of the conclusion of Silence, the Shusaku Endo novel recently made into a film, where the Jesuit missionary abandons the faith and desecrates and image of Christ to save his fellow Christians from being martyred. Why ...? Because, according to this logic, God in the end does not require us to endure suffering at such human expense, surely .... Or else, if we do hold the line in such circumstances, it can only be under the non-compulsion of counsel, not the obligation of precept... Or else, if we choose not to desecrate the image of Christ, it is not that the alternative is unviable.

Perhaps what is most confusing about this is the following: such irregular situations are compatible with a growth in the life and love of God in the soul. This at least is logical: if these people can be in a state of grace, they must be able to grow in grace and, if grow, then why not become great saints. Amoris Laetitia says it more or less explicitly:

“It is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL 305).   

There are only two conclusions I can see in this light. First, it means that God sometimes requires the humanly impossible by precept. But what about grace, you say? Quite, we cannot fulfil God's will without his grace but there is the second problem. By this new calculation, God's grace is not sufficient for us, or at least not sufficient for someone in an irregular marital situation. Yes, apparently God has given us the law but does not give us the strength to fight free of our transgressions of it....

To my mind - my poor, fraught mind - it is just like the end of Silence. When Fr Rodrigues is asked by his Japanese persecutors to trample on an image of Jesus, Christ speaks these words in his mind:

You my trample. You may trample.  [...] It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.

But Shusaku's conclusion is a perversion of the Gospel. It reminds me of nothing so much as the very moment of crucifixion when certain passersby shouted:

Come down from the cross

Come down from the cross, because the sin you are accused of isn't really on your conscience; because life is too complicated; or because too many people will be hurt by your obedience to God; or because following God's commands can only harm you; and because those who say you must obey God are being Pharisees anyway. Come down from the cross. You cannot do it anyway and God will not help you commit 'greater harm' than seriously offending him. Come down from the cross. Whatever the priests do, let them not promise a resurrection beyond the crucifixion of separation.

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I know of so many who are broken hearted by current events. I have known much anger, confusion and trouble myself in the last year or more. But, by the grace of God, I think I now understand something that brings me much comfort.

No response we make to the terrible times in which we live can help us if we do not look upon events with the gaze of God. I hear talk of anger and scorn towards Pope Francis and those involved at the very top. I understand it. I know where it comes from. I am not beyond it myself.

But we will only offend God and hurt ourselves to let such an attitude take root in our hearts. We should hate collaboration but love the collaborators. Hate betrayal but love the betrayers.

We have all collaborated or betrayed in one way or another, and there are more sins in the catechism than those against faith. But let us ask God once for the grace to look on these tumultuous events with his eyes and the path of constancy and serenity opens at our feet.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Rachmaninov contra barbaros

A recent discovery of a new version of Rachmaninov's Nunc dimittis has been on my mind for various reasons. Most particularly, I suppose, it is because Rachmaninov's music bespeaks the warm blanket of comfort that this period of the year seems to offer us. Some find these months hard; lethargy is all too easy; the dark nights remain with us. The dark nights of city and Church perhaps. But there is always comfort to be found somewhere, and I only need hear a few lines of Rachmaninov's Russian voice to feel almost human(e) once more. Indeed, Rachmaninov is not only one of my barriers against the cold season. He helps give me a further layer of protection against the ghastly forces ranged against us. It might be fun for me to explain that a little.

Why I would feel better after a few bars of Rachmaninov perhaps has something to do with where and when I heard his music and drank of its depths. In one of my fading sepia memories, a school friend - now incidentally a very successful impresario - fell in love with the Second Piano concerto and played it continually. In his sitting room at home behind his father's butcher's shop, he had one of those rare things: an upright practice piano that could actually hold its tuning. It also had the most sensitive action I have seen on any piano. The keys melted like butter beneath the fingers and the instrument almost played the music for you. My friend pored over the score of Rachmaninov's concerto for weeks, I turned the pages and made the tea, and something like music was the end result.

Rach 2 and then Rach 3 (way before Shine made it popular) became favoured pieces on my Walkman circa 1988. The tape I possessed boasted both concertos and - pure delight! - also a recording of the Isle of the Dead,  Rachmaninov's tone poem inspired by Arnold Böcklin's famous painting:


Many other Rach memories surface as I write these lines. I once sat in rapture on the edge of my seat while the Halle orchestra performed Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony. I left the concert with a stiff neck but a soul transformed! The tape I mentioned above with the Isle of the Dead once saved me from a very bad bout of sea sickness in the English channel. Not many years later I saw two performances of Rach 3 by young piano students. The first dripped sweat and blood throughout all three movements and practically had to be carried off at the end. The second had such a huge technique he tickled the entire piece out of his Steinway with all the ease of someone playing Chopsticks. I've never seen such an effortless performance, yet today I cannot find any trace of him on the internet. Sic transit gloria pianisti!

My romance with Rachmaninov continued some years later when I came to discover the All Night Vigil. There is not time enough to say how it takes all of Rachmaninov's lyricism - all of its complex colours and silken textures - and distills it into a most sacred liquor. Rachmaninov's bass lines are always coherent, but in the Vigil they are magisterial. His harmonies are always dense but in the Vigil they achieve something of the glory of an Orthodox mosaic - all golds and glimmering and distant depths. It is a reminder of how far the West has fallen from its own liturgical glories; how badly our clunky musical prosody falls short of an authentic liturgical poetry.  

Spending time with such music gradually begins to give you a sense of what the utilitarian and empiricist nineteenth century had tried to drive out of the human soul. We are not just all cogs in a grand machine of profit, tax and painful productivity. There are vistas beyond the measurable, stories that cannot be reduced to calculations, feelings that are ineffable. A few minutes with Rachmaninov and liberation from the treadmill seems possible. Rachmaninov himself found the treadmill overwhelming. He certainly didn't enjoy the kind of perfectionist criticism that has no time for human inconsistency. Blindly he inflicted it on himself as a young man and brought himself to a nervous breakdown.

The worst and most oft repeated accusation against Rachmaninov is that he is a Romantic, a purveyor of melodramatic inauthenticity bordering on sickly sweetness. I'm not sure what he is supposed to be instead, but frankly the accusation is unfounded. As his fellow countryman Prokofiev wrote (I approximate), "There are still many melodies left to be written in C major." Rachmaninov knew it, though I dare say he preferred C minor. Indeed, I'm inclined to say Rachmaninov's melodic gift was superior to Prokofiev's. He certainly had a more fruitful imagination than the drab but far more respectable Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Berg.

His greater achievement though, at least in my view, was to evoke all the vistas of human emotion in an age of abusive repression; an age of stunted Gradgrindism with its self-proclaimed ownership of the human future. Progress sounds fun but why is it always backed by such unconvincing advocates? In all their errors of taste lies a clue to the errors of their mind. A veritable Isle of the Dead indeed.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Spoilt canonisations, or death, the great leveller

The annual worldwide mortality rate amounts to some 55 million people every year. I'm not sure if last year this statistic went up but if it were possible for the Grim Reaper to die from overwork, he would surely have succumbed by the end of 2016. From Aleppo to Yemen via Kinshasa, the calendar was painted in vermillion hues.

I've no wish to make light of this figure, particularly where those deaths were possibly avoidable, as in the current Middle East conflict. Still, 2016 also saw an unusually large wave of deaths among celebrities of all stripes. From David Bowie in January to Carrie Fisher in December, by way of so many other well-known names, the Reaper's harvest appears to have been abundant among the famous. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.

One of the more curious phenomena of the media age is that deaths usually happen twice over, or at least bereavements do. I'm not alluding here to the delectable anecdote about Mark Twain who once corrected a newspaper that had reported his demise: 'Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated!' I am thinking of the fact that such celebrity bereavements happen first as a family and private experience, and then as a public manifestation.

For the family, bereavement is all too recognisable: the absence of the beloved, the complexity of the post-mortem arrangements, the funeral rites, the slow-motion aftermath, etc. For the celebrity, however, a second bereavement occurs closely on the heels of the first. The media are hungry for news and celebrity demise is always worth a few sales or a few clicks. Celebrities seem to belong to the public in some way and even more so in the moment of their loss. They are mourned for the portion of our culture that they represented, for the images they created or the sentiments that they evoked. It is probably for such reasons that over time public mourning seems to grow insincere. Rarely are such celebrities worthy of the accolades accorded them, and there is a kind of laudatory one-up-man-ship that overtakes the commentariat on radio and TV.  Now is not the moment to denigrate the fallen hero or even attempt a balanced appraisal of their contribution. The levels of mourning seen in the wake of the death of Princess Diana are now echoed in smaller ways with certain celebrities.

In such cases of "social canonisation", we also see a variety of myth making at work. The celebrity's death brings a certain consecration to the social values they symbolised. Take the recent death of George Michael whose only shame in the eyes of the myth makers was to have closeted his sexuality for so long. When Michael told the Guardian that his drug taking and cottaging (i.e. anonymous gay sex with strangers in public toilets) were 'just who I am', he anointed himself an archpriest of individual choice, and his auto-consecration was acclaimed by the adoring admirers.

That 'just who I am' has a powerful narrative function in the current climate. It is a little like 'and they all lived happily ever after', the expression that ratifies the outcome of the traditional story and justifies the trials that had been endured. If what we have done is 'just who I am', then all is well.  The paradox is that 'just who I am' rises above its individual origins and stands in some normative position for the rest of society. If what I have done is 'just who I am', then society must tolerate it. Being 'just who I am' licenses everyone to be just who they are. In such circumstances responsibility ceases to concern others and takes to itself the measure of self-fulfilment. Irresponsibility is not to fulfil oneself.

According to reports Michael was a frequent donor to good causes and generous to a fault. May much, therefore, be forgiven him. Still, what of those around him? What of those whose dignity he helped destroy in tandem with his own? Indeed, what of those who have read his lyrics, imbibed his spirit and became intoxicated on the licentiousness he legitimised?

From such dizzying heights of human glory I suppose we all might easily fall. Michael lies tonight in some cold mortuary fridge, as somber and silent as any corpse. Dead men tell no tales, but cadavers do give lessons. Oddly, the commentariat are a little less reluctant to celebrate what Michael now conotes, than they were to congratulate him on what he once symbolised. I wonder if the modern love of cremation is less about denying the resurrection of the body - as was once the case for many secularists - and more about trying to disguising the evidence of where it all leads.

As I am, so once was he. 
As he is, so will I be.

Well, there is a cheery thought to start the new year. As Dickens' Mark Tapley says, there is no credit in being cheery except in the face of misfortune! In my end is my beginning.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Christmas slacking

I'm breaking my Christmas blog silence to say a hearty 'Happy Christmas' to anyone passing by and a happy New Year for 2017 .... whatever it brings!

Christmas family time is too precious to interrupt with blogarrhea! More from me in January.