Tag Archives: Life

Blink and you’ll miss it.

Life has a funny way of going on. Even when it seems impossible, when you’re juggling a dozen balls and you’re barely confident with two, it keeps on coming. Sometimes you drop a ball, sometimes you catch one. Whatever happens, you have to carry on.

The problem with that, though, is that sometimes things fall by the wayside. Equally, sometimes we place things there deliberately. Life is so rich and full and we’re spoilt for choice every single day. If we’re not careful it can become overwhelming and then we enjoy none of it. Life happens even when we’re not looking. For many things it’s a case of blink and you’ll miss it. In the space of a year, everything can change. Sometimes that means pausing those things we can control to keep up with those we can’t.

Everything has changed. Even after the most pregnant of pauses, though, it’s good to press play again.

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Toast and lemons, or why love is stronger than hell.

This morning I read this post on a blog by one of my university friends. She writes from a very different background to me but that doesn’t mean we don’t find common theological ground sometimes. This morning was not one of those times. I am not suggesting she is wrong to encourage Christianity centred around love – it is the idea that there is an alternative with which I take issue.

As I read the post, I was struck by what seemed to be a very particular understanding of hell. It’s not made explicit (and doubtless she’ll be quick to correct me if I’m mistaken!) but it seemed to be a very old-fashioned point of view, laced with fire and brimstone and, to quote her illustration choice, “tortured lost souls burning forever”. It also has a certain physicality to it – the preaching she is questioning wants lost souls to avoid being sent to hell, as though three-year-old me was correct to think heaven was a place just above the sky and hell was somewhere underground. This worldview caused brief consternation on a summer holiday to Wales in the same year, when somebody asked if the hole I was digging in the sand was to get to Australia. Wouldn’t you have to dig through hell to do that? That didn’t seem like a very good idea at all. You can imagine my relief when Mum told me you couldn’t really dig to Australia, though I’m not sure at what point I realised that hell being in the way was not the precluding factor.

Intercontinental travel is no longer my primary issue with this understanding of hell, though. My biggest concern is that it doesn’t make sense in the context of everything else I understand and believe, and that was glaringly apparent to me as I read the post this morning. My main (though related) point of contention, however, was in the conditional – if love and hell work in the sort of binary opposition that is suggested, it seems if nothing else to be logically inconsistent to treat one as an experience or way of being and one as a place or at least conditions to be under. More often, we see heaven and hell held in opposition and had that been the case here I might have agreed more with the argument (though, as should become clear if it isn’t already, I still don’t think of them as physical destinations when I leave this mortal coil). The problem I have is the suggestion that a focus upon love is an a better point of departure for Christianity than a focus upon hell. To me that is devastatingly understated – love is stronger than hell because it has to be the only point of departure.

Love

As far as I’m concerned, love is the most powerful force in existence. You don’t have to look at the world from a Christian point of view to see that – there are countless examples of the extremes individuals go to when motivated by love. Sometimes we call it different things – bravery, kindness, goodness, strength – but it all boils down to love in the end. Most of us are fortunate enough to know the searing intensity of love first hand, be it shown to us or by us, in our relationships with partners, family or friends. For Christians love is the foundation of the relationship with God too. From the outside looking in that can be very difficult to understand, but just because something is different does not mean it is complicated. The clearest explanation I can think of from is a short remark a friend once made when describing his own relationship with God:

I’m His boy.

Even though I am notoriously bigandmeanandtoughandstrong I found that short sentence incredibly emotive. It’s so simple and yet intimate, and I was struck by how straightforward he made it sound. He was completely right, though.

Sometimes when I’m on my political soapbox I like to talk about the “real human impact” of policies and how important it is to think about how the theory plays out in the real world. That doesn’t mean we let emotion or sentimentality preside over reason and sense, but that we remember that politics is not just theoretical. It’s the same with theology too. Academic theology is important to me as a Catholic because, as with everything else in my life, I can only sincerely believe in something if it satisfies my head and my heart. I find myself suspicious of theologies that encourage an overly emotive foundation over reason and intellectual consistency because I think it makes a mockery of what faith means. Faith demands that we acknowledge the limitations of our capacity to know and to understand, not that we altogether dispense with reason and rationality. Similarly, philosophical arguments matter most when they have a practical impact in the real world. The challenge of belief is holding all of these ideas in balance, without overcomplicating things to the point that it loses meaning. Love challenges us similarly.

Like belief, love is at once incredibly complicated and incredibly simple. We know what love means, but how do we balance the sort of abstract love with the tangible love we might experience at any given moment? Ask me if I love my family and I’ll immediately tell you I do; ask me why and I might struggle to articulate it because here and now on a train it’s an intellectualised sort of love that governs my relationship with them. At the same time, though, there are moments when that bond feels more immediately real – that overwhelming feeling of being sad and far away from home, or those moments where pride burns in your heart, the waves of relief when somebody returns to you safely. It doesn’t mean I only love my family at those moments of intensity though – both types of love are real and both matter. I once argued fiercely with a tutor who refused to believe anybody could sincerely love a stranger because he did not think an abstract love of humanity was equally true on a specific level. I told him he was wrong and confusing possibility with difficulty and he told me I was being unrealistic. I told him that abstracts were as ‘real’ as you were prepared to make them them, and I stand by that.

When we talk about love in a Christian sense it’s exactly the same. Love is something that we feel in our everyday life and its also a conceptual belief that governs that everyday life. Experience alone should tell us all that you don’t have to be a Christian to love or be loved, you just have to be. However, how can I say that love is fundamental to Christianity and yet say that Christianity is not fundamental to love? Easily, fortunately, and helpfully without being a massive heretic too:

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Christianity teaches that God is love, which is difficult to understand in any meaningful way as long as we’re thinking of God as a bloke in the sky, or even as something somewhere. As with heaven and hell, thinking spatially makes the questioning easier but the answering harder. “God is love” just means that when we talk about God we’re talking about the truest form of love – if all of the things that we think of when we think about love are lemon-flavoured, God is a really lemony lemon. If God (in completeness) is greater than anything we can ever imagine and if God is love, then that means that love is necessarily ‘bigger’ than Christianity and also that love has to be Christianity’s point of departure. Just bog-standard, run of the mill love. The fact that love happens to tend to be extraordinary and life-changing is just incidental.

Hell

Now that we’re clear on what I mean by love, hell is a lot easier to explain. Love can operate in one direction but in a relationship it is reciprocated. If you love somebody but the feeling is unrequited it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them enough. Equally, their decision to reject you does not undermine the integrity of your love. By the same reasoning, if a person chooses not to love God that does not mean that God does not love them or tell us anything about the strength or integrity of God’s love. Just as your friend might tell you that the object of your affection is missing out by not wanting to be in a loving relationship with you, I believe that I would be missing out if I didn’t choose to be in a relationship with God. Whilst it would not change what I am or where I am, it would make my life very different. That state of being is what hell means – it is not where you are, but how you are.

Given my background, you might be surprised by that idea. However, though Catholicism has a reputation for promulgating a particularly fierce doctrine of hell, that does not mean that hell is to be understood literally. The Church also teaches that hell is to be understood as a state of being. The Catechism states:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves […] To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell”.

There are those who will have recoiled as soon as I even came close to suggesting the word ‘metaphor’ but it does not meanthat hell should be taken any less seriously. If someone tells you they are “in a dark place” you do not worry about them less if they are not shut in a wardrobe. Not believing in a literal place with literal fire does not make hell a less fearsome prospect. The only respite we have in life is the knowledge that everything is temporary. The choices we make, be it whether or not to have a slice of toast or whether or not to have a relationship with God, are not forever. We make the choice and we live by it, and if that means I’m hungry by 11am, I just have to face the consequences and remember to have a piece tomorrow. Life is temporary too, though, and if I get hit by a bus and killed on my way home, suddenly I can never have a piece of toast again. Admittedly that would be the least of my worries (I can’t actually eat bread anyway so it’s a weak analogy) but you see my point – we never know when a choice will become irreversible. The way in which I understand God and love means that my life would be worse without them. Even though sometimes other options seem more appealing, I know it’s not what I want in the long term. To be without them for eternity would be a hell that is worse than I can imagine, colloquially and literally.

Love vs Hell

All of this is why I disagree with the original post. It’s not the sentiment I disagree with – as I’ve said, I think if anything it understates how central love is to Christianity. The problem I have is with ideas of hell (and indeed sin and judgement) that are formed independently from the understanding of love, because, all else aside, I don’t see that they can ever make sense. Certain branches of Christianity spend a lot of time and spill a lot of ink worrying about how to convince people that the “Good News” is really good, and not enough time worrying about the consistency of their theology. If you put any proposition to me and ask me to believe it, I’m going to be less concerned with how nice it sounds and more worried about whether or not it makes sense. As a Christian, you presumably believe the news is good, so I struggle to understand why it needs to be dressed up to make it appeal to others. Real conviction and real relationships aren’t based on rose-tinted glasses and that’s as important to remember wherever you stand in terms of Christianity.

In life, it’s okay to fear hell, be that toastlessness or Godlessness. In fact it’s pretty sensible, far more so than avoiding thinking about it or talking about it because it doesn’t sound appealing. Equally though, there are far more powerful and constructive influences than scaremongering. If you ever need a starting point for anything, love is stronger than hell.

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Thank you, NHS.

Today, the National Health Service in Britain celebrates its 65th anniversary. Like millions of others I owe my life to the NHS, metaphorically and literally. In no particular order, here are 20 things that I want to thank the NHS for:

  1. For meaning I can afford the 22 tablets I take each day to make my slightly broken body work a little more like it should, and the physiotherapy that keeps me moving.
  2. For fighting for me, even though my immune system often doesn’t want to.
  3. For the vaccinations that we take for granted even though millions around the world do not have the same privilege.
  4. For not giving up on me even though you can’t cure me.
  5. For patching me up when I break myself because I am a clumsy fool.
  6. For chopping out bits that are misbehaving and fixing my insides.
  7. For not letting me die when I turned out to be a bit rubbish at the being born thing.
  8. For looking after people I love and helping them to become well again, and making them comfortable even when you couldn’t make them better.
  9. For the doctors who let me stay with my nan for every chest drain and blood test so she didn’t have to feel afraid.
  10. For every paramedic who has ever come to the rescue.
  11. For the radiographer who told me that the smashed up bits of ankle floating in my foot looked like a cool far away galaxy, even if it wasn’t the ideal place or number of parts for my ankle bone to be in.
  12. For the nurse who let me try to chop his arm off with the saw when I had my first cast cut off so I wasn’t scared.
  13. For the dentist who has known me longer than anyone but my immediate family.
  14. For the physiotherapist who cried laughing at me when she was teaching me how to walk again, helping me to be able to laugh about it too.
  15. For everyone who has bravely tried to pronounce my name with confidence to a crowded waiting room.
  16. For the doctor on the night shift who offered me half of his chips after seven hours in A&E.
  17. For every phlebotomist who has battled to pry blood out of my stingy veins (and the junior doctor who cried because it took her seven attempts).
  18. For the nurse who gave me off-cuts from the plaster room so I could make a Greek pot for my classics project when I was stuck at home.
  19. For every person who has asked “Are you okay?” and meant it.
  20. For countless cups of tea and sympathy and about a kilometre of tubigrip.

I could go on writing this list for days, I have so much to be thankful for. Doubtless the system has its problems – my nan died of lung cancer six weeks after a nurse told her she had a chest infection when the doctor was too busy to see her, and I’ve probably spent actual weeks of my life in waiting rooms – but the good that the NHS does far outweighs the bad. We are quick to complain and take it for granted, but I’d wager that every person in this country could write a list of things they owe it for. Try it –  you’ll be surprised and incredibly grateful.

Thank you, NHS.

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Letters I Will Never Send – 2.

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to be able to write this. I sat down a few times in that first week but I just couldn’t find the words. There’s a horrible irony that there was only ever one person I could really rely on to help me find the right way to say the things I wanted to, but you can’t help me with this one.

My earliest memories of you are as my teacher, but my best memories are as a friend. In some ways your approach to both was the same, and I think that’s what made you such an excellent teacher – all passion and enthusiasm and brilliant humour. I still remember our first AS lesson when you decided our class was too inhibited because we refused to join you in adopting a southern states drawl as we began reading through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I remember even more the lessons that followed, when our self-conscious mumbling was gradually eroded by laughter as you forced us to read it in a variety of (with hindsight, probably borderline racist) accents – the more we hesitated the more ridiculous the accent you gave us next time. You taught us not to take ourselves so seriously (the curse of awkward teenagers everywhere) and also that Tennessee Williams is still surprisingly great when Brick is from Mumbai and Maggie is from Glasgow. You inspired a real love of literature but also a real love of you – much to the detriment of those who tried to teach us after you left, all of whom were treated with disproportionate suspicion and were probably exhausted from hearing the objection “Well, with Miss before…”

I was glad to keep in touch with you after you left and feel so lucky that I was able to come to call you my friend. I think you probably taught me more about life as my friend than you ever did about literature in the classroom, and that’s saying something. You always had far more confidence in me than I do in myself and that was a constant source of encouragement. I could use a bit of that right now. Do you remember when you visited me in Oxford and we went for a walk around college? I was overtired, overworked and underwhelmed by the drivel I was producing academically. I didn’t say any of this to you but as we walked you gave me one of your classic pep-talks anyway, complete with passages of Shakespeare and probably other allusions that I missed, and I felt a thousand times better. You were always great at sensing when there was something wrong and always seemed to find the right words; you were even better at knowing when to make me talk about it and when to just be there. I’ll miss that enormously. I miss it already.

You taught me a lot about being sick too and the sort of attitude I have to it is no doubt at least in part down to you.  I don’t know that I will ever meet somebody so incredibly brave and dignified in the face of such a horrible ordeal. Most of all, you never let it define you or dampen your exuberance for life, and you kept that wicked sense of humour. My favourite story to tell about you is the one about that evening when we were driving back from a play talking about your illness. Perhaps egged on by an evening of theatricality or perhaps just being yourself, you tore off your wig with a dramatic flourish but lost your grip at just the wrong moment; we only narrowly avoided it flying out of the open window at 40mph and to this day I don’t know how you grabbed it in time and how we didn’t crash as the pair of us wept laughing. The only time I remember you being cross with me was when I had just changed my medication and ordered a soft drink at the bar. You balled me out there and then, as always incredibly articulately, and told me that life wasn’t going to hang around waiting for me to get better. I carry that with me to this day.

We talked about all manner of things, but most of all you loved to talk about your family. Many an afternoon I’ve settled down in your kitchen or living room and been regaled with stories of what “himself” had been up to, and I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve heard the words “Oh, you’ll never guess what D said the other day! He’s terrible you know…” and then waited until you had composed yourself from laughing enough to tell me the tale. A lot was said the other week of what a glamorous and beautiful woman you were (maybe even enough to make you bashful?!), and I nearly laughed aloud in church as I remembered you telling me the story of A drawing somebody else’s mother in primary school because she thought she was more stylish! You told stories better than anybody else I know and, no matter what you were telling me, you lit up with love and pride as you talked about your family. I always thought that one day we’d meet for coffee in my kitchen instead, and I could tell you how my husband and kids were doing. It feels strange to know that will never happen.

I could go on and on reminding you of these stories and  telling you how wonderful I think you are, but, modesty aside, I hope you knew that already. There were so many people at church the other week, no doubt with hundreds more tales of your brilliance. The service was beautiful too – I think it was exactly how you would have wanted it and I know how proud you would have been of himself and the kids. I’d get around to the point of my letter now, if I knew what it was. I miss you so much already, but I don’t really know what to do with that. I think mostly I just want to talk to you; it doesn’t really matter what about. I’m trying to focus on the positives, like you’d tell me to – I’m heartbroken that you’re gone, but I’m so glad that I knew you at all.

I love you, D. I’ve never wanted to be able to send a letter more.

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Forty thousand years of 2am.

It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because my brain is full of questions that I can’t answer. It’s overwhelming, as 2am tends to be when it’s just you and your thoughts. Tonight is different though, because tonight I’m trying to bend my mind around the idea that people have been lying awake at 2am worrying about their world for forty thousand years. It’s a strange thought, comforting and terrifying in equal measure, and it’s entirely the fault of a tiny little carved woman.

Female figure sculpted from steatite. Found at Grimaldi, Italy, thought to be about 20,000 years old.

Musée d’archéologie nationale
© Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi

I have a theory about humanity. When we’re confronted with something beyond our comprehension we react to it in one of two ways – either we shy away from it and reject it, or we allow ourselves to be consumed by an infinite fascination. When it comes to our existence, though, only the latter is an option. This is why people like me lie awake at 2am, why philosophers philosophise, and why millions of teenagers are wracked by the sort of existential angst that Sartre would be proud of. Why am I here, now, and how am I myself? In the absence of a definitive answer, it seems only logical to lay out the pieces of puzzle that we have to play with. Enter art, and with it thousands of years of puzzle pieces – tiny fragments of expressions of existence.

Today, my whole scale changed. When I think about art, I rarely stray beyond two thousand years ago. Quite often I don’t even venture that far – my current paper has had me resident in 15th Century Florence for quite a while now and my brain and I have been having a lovely time there. Six hundred years adrift from my existence is pushing the boundaries of my capacity to relate, but every now and then I’m struck by something so human that that relation is obvious. When I walked into an exhibition of Ice Age art today, my head literally ached as I attempted to imagine humanity forty thousand years ago. Some days I struggle with basic counting so 40,000 is difficult enough as a number, let alone as a measure of enduring reality. My brain was trapped in a mini ice age of its own, frozen.

As it turned out, all that it took to thaw the great freeze was one tiny, carved figure. It was no taller than an inch and (then present company excepted) it was the oldest thing I have ever seen. I recognised the figure from the exhibition advertising but was not prepared for the scale of it in reality – the marketing team had, very literally, blown it out of all proportion. As I stood before it in the British Museum, I was overwhelmed. As the curator’s label informed me, it was not a literal depiction of a woman but it was most definitely a carved human figure; it was instantly identifiable but almost wholly abstract by modern standards. Then came the realisation – I was not looking at some primitive attempt at a portrait, I was looking at an expression of human existence. More than that, it was an expression that tapped into something so essential that twenty thousand years apart from the artist, I could identify with it. It was so simple and yet more complex than anything I can convey, and it was the key to unlocking my understanding of the whole collection of art on display. At first I thought this epiphany was an existential puzzle piece slotting into place, but it soon dawned on me that it was just the realisation that the puzzle is forty thousand times bigger than I’d ever imagined. That tiny little woman is the product of humanity under conditions that are more alien to us than I can really imagine, and yet it speaks to the exact existence I know today.

I find a funny reassurance in the commonality of it all – the idea that people have always tried to express the puzzle of what it is to simply be. Yet, as I lie here, I also can’t shake the enormous sense of disquiet at the thought that a billion lifetimes have passed since that little woman was fashioned and I am no less bewildered at 2am.

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Letters I Will Never Send – 1.

Today you asked me why we’re friends. You were joking of course but it got me thinking. I don’t know if you know that you’re one of my best friends; I hope you do. I’m not really sure when it happened that I became so very glad of you but I truly am. I’m going to try to show that more.

Sometimes when we’re chatting I laugh about how we seem to have nothing in common but yet we get on so well. Secretly, I always hope you’ll correct me and think of something because I don’t like much about myself and I wish one of us could spot something of you in me. You’re tenacious and driven (you’ve got gumption as we’d say if this was 1940s America) but you’ve got a bigger heart than you’d care to admit too. You’re brave and you’re fierce and you’re gentle inside. If I had to pick one word to describe you it would be “honest”, and I value your brilliant honesty every day. You’re far too cool to be my friend but you tolerate my weirdness and treat me like your equal and I appreciate that every day too.

Most of all, I want you to know that I admire you. Admiration is a funny thing, and it almost feels silly to say it, but I’m not sure what other way to express it. I look up to you and I am so proud to call you my friend. I hope one day I’m more like you.

Thank you.

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The Gentlemen’s Club.

On the bus back into London today, I spotted a billboard at the side of the road advertising the strip-club Spearmint Rhino. I say “spotted”, but that probably suggests a misleading degree of achievement on my part – the thing was enormous and pretty much unmissable. I suppose there are a few things I might find objectionable about the advert, but I’m not about to launch into a detailed discussion about the morality of strip-clubs or the appropriateness of a scantily-clad, larger than life woman (interpret that as you will…) towering over one of the main roads into London. It was actually the tagline, which describes Spearmint Rhino as a gentlemen’s club, that caused me to double-take. I asked myself the question I’m about to put to you now –  what exactly is “gentlemanly” about paying to watch women you don’t know take off their clothes?

The euphemism is inherited from the tradition of private members’ clubs (plenty of which still exist) which require members to have some particular common interest. For Spearmint Rhino and others of its ilk, that common interest appears to be women in various states of undress. I said that I had no intention to launch into a discussion about the morality of strip-clubs and I stand by that, but I will say that I think the enduring presence of clubs with such a common interest amongst their clientele is symptomatic of a disease which is endemic in our culture – a basic lack of respect and responsibility.

The news this week has been full of the horrific story of the Steubenville rape case. If you’re unfamiliar with the story you can read the BBC account here. More than the incident itself, the way in which it has been reported has caused absolute outrage – CNN in particular has been criticised for focussing upon the impact of prosecution on the rapists rather than the victim. Poppy Harlow was the CNN reporter at court, providing this as her initial response:

I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.

I understand that that might be true, but I struggle to see why the consequences of their freely chosen actions is more tragic than the assault of a young girl. Was her experience in court any less traumatic than theirs? No, it was probably far worse. Descriptors like “incredibly emotional” and “incredibly difficult” might better have preceded an account which talked about the prosecution of two young men who showed no respect for a sixteen year old girl and violated her repeatedly in the most disgusting ways, or the fact that their prosecution finally concluded the public reliving of that experience for the victim. It is sad that their lives have been irreversibly changed but so has hers. The difference is, it was their choice and their responsibility. They showed her no respect, and they showed no self-respect either.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the Steubenville case, though, is the way in which the evidence for the prosecution was gathered – from texts, from social media, and from photographs.  In a New Statesman article Laurie Penny compares the photographs to the Abu Ghraib photographs. They are evidence of the boys’ crime, but they are evidence of that endemic disease too.

The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’. Only one in which rape and sexual humiliation of women and girls is so normalised that it does not register as a crime in the minds of the assailants…Rape culture. That’s what rape culture is. The cultural acceptance of rape.

The point that I am making here is not that going to a strip-club, or running a strip-club, or even stripping at a strip-club, is the same as rape. Of course it isn’t. What worries me, though, is that they are underpinned by the same core issue. Our culture is part of a much more sinister sort of ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, whose members value their own desires more than they value treating others with respect, who prioritise sexual gratification over their principles, and who will do all they can to deny that they are responsible for the choices they make. I find it baffling and terrifying.

I overheard a boy I know discussing the Steubenville case with absolute horror, wholly agreeing with Laurie Penny’s article. In general, I think he’d probably describe himself as feminist. I wonder what he’d think if he knew I found it ridiculous to hear him talking about making a stand against rape culture when I know that he has, emotionally speaking, treated girls terribly in the past. He’d probably tell me it’s not the same thing at all. He’d be right in a sense – just like the strip-clubs, it’s not at all the same thing – but it’s still symptomatic of the same disease. When I hear him talk about an ex coldly or believe sincerely that it’s not his fault when people get hurt because of selfish choices he makes when he is sad or lonely or drunk, I hear the same lack of respect and responsibility. He’s in the Club too, even if he’s just there for a drink with his mates and isn’t bothered about the stripping bit. You don’t have to be pushing money into underwear to be complicit.

The cruelest irony in all of this metaphor of sickness and Gentlemen’s Clubs is that there’s really nothing gentlemanly about any of it. Worse still, we’re choosing to be sick.

To me, it’s pretty simple. The sort of club that I want to be a part of is a club where people respect themselves and one another, make their choices based on that, and take responsibility for those choices. Incidentally, it’s also the sort of club which you can join regardless of whether you are biologically, economically or otherwise a ‘gentleman’. Life is complicated and people make mistakes, but if we had those principles of respect and responsibility at the core of it, I can’t help but feel that society would function pretty well for everyone involved.

And that’s the sort of club I want to see advertised on billboards.

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Norwegian Wood.

I’ve never been to Norway. Until a few months ago, my only real knowledge of the place came from a review provided by my great aunt – “expensive and watery” (I debated pursuing the point that “watery” was unavoidable – she was on a cruise – but ultimately decided against it). Over the last few months, though, my picture has started to change and I’m beginning to think that Norway might actually be pretty excellent.

My primary point of evidence for this is that I am now friends with two Norwegian people, both of whom are great. I’m not sure if I am hyper-aware because of these newfound friendships or if there genuinely has been a surge of newspaper articles about Norway in the British press, but three things in particular have caught my eye.

1. Norwegian tax payers pay less tax in November so that they all have money for Christmas.

Now arguably, given my great aunt’s assessment, Norwegians need all the help they can get to afford Christmas. If we think it gets pricey here, imagine what it must be like in the land of the expensive and the watery! Even so, there’s something pleasingly human about this. Very rarely in [serious newsreader voice] The Current Financial Climate [resume normal manner of speaking] do we hear of governments acting in a way that seems wildly impractical on a national scale so that Joe Bloggs on the street can catch a break. And in fact if Jim Bloggs, Jean Bloggs and everyone else (both within and without the extended Bloggs family) catches that same break, then isn’t that wildly practical on a national scale too? I’m pretty sure it’s dubious economics, but it’s excellent humaning. Also I blooming love Christmas.

2. Norway has the lowest rate in Europe for re-offends; their prison system includes an island which simulates life after prison.

You can read the full article from the Guardian here and form your own opinion. At first I thought it all sounded a bit Shutter Island, and doubtless there will be people who will be appalled at the relative ‘luxury’ bestowed upon criminals including rapists and murderers, but I suspect this might actually be good humaning on Norway’s part once again.

Primarily, I don’t think we can underestimate the significance of the statistics:

“In 2007, 14 prisons in England and Wales had reconvictions rates of more than 70%. At an average cost of £40,000 a year for each prisoner, this amounts to a huge investment in failure – and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners.”

Our justice system in this country is reformative; agree or disagree, but the purpose of prison is not to punish an offender but to turn them around. There’s a decent argument to say that in lots of cases and for lots of reasons, that system doesn’t always work out. That’s where I think Balstoy is getting it right. Again, regardless of whether or not you think they should be, all of the prisoners are due to be released within five years. One of my favourite soapboxes is about responsibility, and how much better I think the world would be if we were all a bit better at taking responsibility for our actions and choices. In prison, as well as taking away freedom, we also take away the need to be responsible. There’s a bitter irony that in a system intended to hold people accountable for their actions and reform them, we trap them in a routine where they don’t even have to take responsibility for their own basic needs. I’m not sure it’s surprising, then, that when we fling them back into the real world they’re not always so great at acting responsibly. And when people are irresponsible, they do things they shouldn’t. 70% reconviction is bad enough, but that doesn’t pick up on those that remain unconvicted, or the fact that not all bad choices are criminal offences.

Balstoy is concerned with teaching the inmates to take on the sort of responsibility that they will need to to turn their lives around in the real world, which benefits all of society. Reformation not retribution is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the victims of crime, but I think it might be the better medicine.

3. 20% of Norway’s population tuned into a recent twelve hour broadcast about wood, eight hours of which was just a log burning.

Can you imagine setting aside twelve hours to watch a programme about wood? I struggle to imagine setting aside twelve hours to watch anything. I have things to do, places to go, people to see. I was getting fidgety by the end of The Hobbit. Watching wood burn in real time would make my top five dull things to endure (alongside paint drying, grass growing, my first year Hebrew classes, and the tv show my grandad watched last night which seemed to be about tanks and fishing). So, either there are a few million people in Norway who really like wood, or they’re on to something that I’m not.

To be fair, both are plausible, but I like to think it’s the latter. I’m not sure what’s in the (apparently abundant) Norwegian water, but if they bottled it I wouldn’t mind a bit. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I find so brilliant about this story, but it suggests something of the same national character that appeals to me in the other two news items as well.

There’s definitely something to be said for having the ability to make the time and headspace for something away from the chaos of the humdrum – to do something literally extra-ordinary. And that’s about more than Norwegian Wood.

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And now for something completely different.

I want to begin this post with a disclaimer and an admission. Some days, when I’m not overhearing other people’s conversations or writing inane lists, I have serious thoughts about serious things. Mostly I just add those thoughts to an inane list and ramble in person about it to anyone who foolishly gives me an opportunity to do so. Today is a little different, because today people were asking for my thoughts before I’d thought about them. As per, I’ve been out flouncing around art galleries all day, so (and here’s the first part of that disclaimer) I am writing this on my phone, on the tube, with only a cursory glance at the headlines and half an hour of BBC news videos as evidence. Next the admission: people wanted my thoughts today because as well as being a young woman, I am also a Catholic and a theologian by trade. I think that’s probably given away the news in question, but let me add the second part of my disclaimer before I begin: this is incredibly reactionary. I realise that what I have to say will cause some people to tell me I’m a bad feminist and/or a bad Catholic, but I don’t profess to be very good at either. I do try my best to be a decent human in general though, so hopefully you can cut me a little slack. I don’t have all the answers – I don’t even have all the questions – and if you ask me again tomorrow I might have changed my mind. If you are still reading at this point, I salute you. If you don’t want to hear my thoughts about the resignation of the Pope, now is your cue to leave – I’ll write you a silly list soon. For the rest of you, excuse the seriousness and let’s cue the titles.

Papal Audience, 2009

This morning news broke that at 8pm on 28th February, Pope Benedict XVI will resign from his office at the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This is the first time this has happened for 600 years and, understandably, the ripple of reaction has spread around the world. This particular drop in the ocean of response is inherently personal but carries with it whatever insight is afforded by being a young catholic, a feminist and (in education at least) a theologian. It will almost certainly be at odds with the views of some Catholics, some feminists and some young people, but it is an honest attempt to provide an initial response from a personal point of view, and to answer the five questions that have been put to me repeatedly today.

On the practical implications:

After 8pm on 28th February, the current Pope will no longer be referred to as His Holiness and will be known again as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It is expected that he will take some time away at the summer residence while his successor is appointed. Though as a cardinal he ought to attend conclave, his age precludes him from voting. After this, he will live elsewhere in the Vatican. The implications of the current Pope living in close proximity to the newly elected Pope seem widely assumed to be negative. This is not necessarily the case. Cormac Murphy O’Connor commented today “Who would want to be Pope?” –  I wonder whether the answer might be ‘someone who has the voice of experience close at hand’ (This might be particularly relevant for one of his potential successors, as we will see).

There has been some debate regarding the resignation in general – given John Paul II’s stoic sense of the papacy as a life-long duty in particular, but also simply in terms of whether the office is ‘just a job’. I think the Pope has more than addressed this in his speech, which you can read here. ‘Resignation’ is our language, but put simply, the Pope has been entitled to renounce his office for the best part of 800 years. Our sensationalist tendencies will no doubt draw out countless dramatic comparisons with the last Pope to do so, Gregory XII, who stood down in 1415 at an incredibly difficult time in the Church’s history. I would suggest a better comparison might be with Celestine V, the Pope who passed the decree which made it possible in 1294. A Benedictine, he too was considered old at his succession, and stepped down after five months in office citing his waning physical strength amongst his reasons for doing so. At the top of Celestine V’s list, however, was the desire for humility, and I think that same humility is characteristic of  Benedict XVI’s decision too.

Today’s news left me sad, but also deeply encouraged – I cannot even begin to imagine the pressure that he must have felt and the personal anguish that coming to this decision must have caused. Yet it was a decision taken entirely in private, away from the external pressures that (until now) have characterised his papacy, and with a focus solely upon the best way to lead the Church in accordance with God’s will. I struggle to call to mind a better example in modern times of the courage and humility required to set aside self-interest for the sake of the Church. In purely practical terms, it is an action that is, literally, crucially Christian.

On the timing of the decision:

Again, the timing of this announcement reflects a degree of humility in its Kantian disinterest (that is to say its setting aside of self-interest). The Pope understands first hand the pressure of succeeding a Pope who has died – the demands of leading the Church through their mourning, the potential for the suddenness of the transition and the uncharacteristic urgency that all of this adds to the office. The Pope is far from rude health and, to be practical rather than morbid, his increasing ailment and advancing years mean that, were he to continue in office, there would be the very real potential of that issue arising again. Though there have been many criticisms levelled at him, it is perhaps a product of my respect for him as a theologian that I would defy anyone who argued that he does not have an acute awareness of the needs of the Church. Hans Kung might be appalled to hear me describe Joseph Ratzinger as one of the greatest living theologians, but I truly believe that he is, and this insight has informed his papacy. He fully understands that this is, in many ways, a time of great vulnerability for the Church; he fully understands the need for the Church to play the game and not just watch from the touchlines. By affecting the transition of the papacy in this way, he is allowing his successor to keep a firm grip of the wheel, affording him as few complications as possible.

Some will argue that the Pope’s resignation heightens the urgency of this ‘crucial moment’. Perhaps so, but perhaps equally there is little point in postponing the inevitable. To labour the earlier analogy, there is no time out in this game. It seems particularly relevant that the announcement comes in the wake of the publication of The Pope’s Jews. Critics love to play on Benedict XVI’s experiences in the Hitler youth, almost as much as they enjoyed criticising the apparent inertia of the Vatican at that time of crisis. The publication of this book challenges that perception, but has a wider message that is relevant: firstly, to quote the author, Gordon Thomas, “The church thinks across centuries. If there’s a dispute for 50 years, so what?” – the priority is upon action not upon the perception of that action; secondly, public perception of the inner workings of the Vatican is not always right. My point is this – I believe it would be incredibly naive to argue that the Pope’s decision is a reaction to scandal or contemporary issues that face the Church. This is not a cowardly man running away from the moment but an astute leader ensuring that the moment does not run away from his Church.

It is also no coincidence that his resignation will take effect at the heart of Lent – what better spiritual narrative to accompany a time of testing and assert the triumph of faithfulness? The appointment of his successor should take place before Easter – what better time to begin a new chapter?

On the theological implications:

I doubt that there is enough ink in the world to satisfy the amount that could potentially be spilled debating the theological implications of this decision. Certainly the Pope appears to be setting a precedent for departure from expectation, but we must be careful to hold this in tension with a theology and a papacy that has been markedly conservative in nature. We might more accurately argue that this decision is a further expression of that which has underpinned his conservative stance, namely that acute awareness of the vulnerability of the Church. Once again, I think it helpful to bear in mind the idea that the Church thinks across centuries. It has not existed for thousands of years by being bowing to the pressures of modernity. That is not to say that it should be an institution immune to criticism or progression of thought, but to say that there is sound political and theological underpinning to cautious conservatism. Under the weight of that responsibility Cormac Murphy O’Connor’s words today once again loom large.

The Guardian today published a list of pressing issues that it believes await the new Pope when he is elected. You can read that list here. Are all of these issues immediately thrown wide open with the succession of a new Pope? In short, I think the answer is no – as we have seen, the Church’s conservative stance is the product of more than papal opinion. In theological terms, I see most scope for potential flexibility in terms of the Church’s position on contraception and homosexuality, when addressed in terms of the dignity of the person, but the repercussions of that line of reasoning leave little room for a change of perspective regarding abortion and the role of women in the clergy. I am perhaps in a minority of feminists who would not see this as a bad thing – I do not see abortion as the absolute right of a liberated woman and I do not see a male priesthood solely as an arbitrary reinforcement of the history of patriarchy. I am less clear of the extent to which I am in a minority of Catholics by seeing room for a revisitation of the former two issues. Perhaps conversely with this line of theological reasoning, I do not expect to see much engagement with the issue of equal marriage – that cautious conservatism that has preserved the Church’s longevity will presumably encourage the new Pope to watch as that issue unfolds in the Church of England first.

On succession:

On the subject of the new Pope, I am entirely in agreement with Patrick Kelly, who told a BBC reporter today that there was no point in playing a guessing game. Understandably, this will not discourage the world from speculating, presumably by the same logic that encourages people to take gambling odds from Paddy Power on Bono or Father Dougal Maguire as the next in line of apostolic succession.

The media will probably be excited by four or five main candidates. Peter Turkson of Ghana, Fracis Arinze of Nigeria and Leonardo Sandri of Argentina will doubtless appear at the top of many lists with good reason. As well as their individual merits, there is a real unifying value in electing a Pope who has a direct engagement with theologies of liberation, as all of these men have –  that said, we might argue that the young Joseph Ratzinger’s experiences in Germany went some way towards that. I think however, there is a particular challenge to be addressed by the Church in Africa and South America at present, which needs strong leadership in an immediate capacity. There is much ground to be covered in establishing a truly universal church and a sense in which the leadership of a ‘liberation Pope’ in Rome might still be too countercultural to be productive. Slow progress perhaps, but there is a theological argument for it yet. Similarly, timing might go against another media favourite, Timothy Dolan from New York. The presence of America in the current socio-political climate might be of detriment to the effectiveness of the papacy; as much could be said for any potential ‘super-power Pope.’

At present, there are three potential candidates who seem most likely. Canadian Marc Oullet has all of the cosmopolitan appeal of Timothy Dolan whilst remaining theologically close to the current Pope. On the surface he seems to fit with the potential theological trajectory outlined above, but it is difficult to tell how deeply his conservatism runs – he is best know for his strong stance on abortion, but that is hardly indicative. Age is also on his side – he is not yet 70. Another strong candidate is Angelo Bagnasco, the current Archbishop of Genoa. He is intellectually well respected, multi-lingual and has spoken prominently (and critically) of Italian culture and the negative role models provided by Silvio Berlusconi and other key figures. He is regarded as the Pope’s lieutenant in Italy, and seems to have a good sense of the interplay between secular issues and theology.

The most obvious candidate to me, however, is Gianfranco Ravasi who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture. As such he is acutely aware of all of the theological issues that are currently prominent, as well as of the importance of dialogue and interplay between the Church and other cultures. He is a renowned Biblical scholar based in Rome, and combines a natural charisma with a keen intellect and media awareness. His main weakness is the fact that he has never been bishop of a large archdiocese, so his pastoral credentials are somewhat unproven. However, given his strengths in all other areas, and with the unprecedented presence of a former Pope living in the Vatican, he seems the ideal candidate. As mentioned previously, this circumnavigates the potential difficulties of the presence of a ‘dowager-Pope’, who instead becomes an invaluable source of support without undermining papal authority. It is a scenario that is unprecedented, but by no means impossible.

On conspiracy theories:

The internet will undoubtedly explode with a wealth of conspiracy theories, including plenty which will compensate for the underwhelming Mayan Apocalypse we experienced in December. Dan Brown is unlikely to be seen for weeks. Nevertheless, there is probably enough intellectual stimulation in the facts alone to keep the rest of us from concerning ourselves with wild speculation.

Ultimately, today’s news will, I hope, become this Pope’s legacy for the right reasons. His approach to the gravity of the decision is a testament to his character as a man and as a Christian, and a brilliant example of his theological insight. It shows a reverence for the authority of the see prioritised above the holder, and so rightly orientated towards God, but also shows an awareness of the contemporary world and the importance of stability in transition. It is a heartbreaking decision that is incredibly brave and demonstrates both wisdom and humility. It is an example to all, and inspirationally encouraging in faith.

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