Sunday, June 15, 2008

Demolition in Doha

It was a wonderful effort in Doha in the early hours of the morning, Australian time, as the Socceroos virtually assured themselves of first spot in their group with a 3-1 thrashing of Qatar. In terms of their attack, it was probably one of the best games I have seen from them in quite a while. The only disappointment was seeing them concede a consolation goal in the dying minutes, but you can't have everything your own way. Suffice to say, the performance was appreciated by all in attendance at Paddy Macguires in the city.

Last night's win means that the game against China next Sunday night in Sydney, which I will be attending, will pretty much be a dead rubber, but hopefully they can show some of their form regardless. I suspect that Australia's toughest games are ahead of them as they progress to one of the five-team groups where pretty much every game will be very tough to win. I'm not sure when the draw will take place to determine who else Australia will be playing, but I look forward to it with interest.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Ulysses is Freakin' Hard to Understand

This time I really do think I've bitten off more than I can chew. I read a few of the great novellists and I thought that I was ready to read James Joyce. Suffice to say, I'm inclined to think that I'm out of my depth. From what I've read so far, it also seems as though you need post-graduate qualifications in English literature to understand the novel.

I'm just wondering if there are any people who could help me get a grasp on this great tome? Perhaps it may be better to read Homer's Odyssey first so I have at least a background knowledge of what Joyce is on about? Or perhaps there is no hope?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sanity Prevails Again

You may well have noticed that I haven't posted for the last week or so. The reason for this was largely beyond control - my computer decided to stop working. That said, the break was quite necessary for an unrelated reason. Sometimes the good has to be postponed for the better. And hopefully, the better better pay off. I shall keep you posted ...

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Play's the Thing, Horatio

I had the opportunity to see a production of "Hamlet" by Bell Shakespeare tonight at the Opera House. The accomplished cast included theatre legend Barry Otto as Polonius and rising star Brendan Cowell as Hamlet. As a pleasant surprise, Sarah Blasko not only produced the score, but had a minor role on stage too. I can tell you now, she's even more gorgeous in real life than I had imagined her to be. The performances were absolutely fantastic, especially from Brendan Cowell. He really had such an amazing stage presence.

As a momento to this evening, I thought I might quote the one of the most famous soliloquys in all of Shakespeare's back catalogue. The artful way in which Shakespeare writes is remarkable at the best of times, but one is only made aware of his brilliance when one hears his plays well performed:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. - Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

Friday, June 06, 2008

"Camus Can Do, But Sartre is Smartre"

So says Jon Lovitz in an episode of the Simpsons, but I'd suggest this is debateable. I've just finished reading "The Stranger" and it is a short, sharp, brilliant book. That said, it was a fairly depressing read, as the following quotes show:

"I was listening, and I could hear that I was being judged intelligent. But I couldnt quite understand how an ordinary mans good qualities could become crushing accusations against a guilty man."

"I did not feel remose for what I had done. But I was surprised by how relentless (the lawyer) he was. I would have liked to have tried explaining him cordially, almost affectionately, that I never had been able to truly feel remose for anything. My mind was always on what is coming next, today or tomorrow."

Thursday, June 05, 2008

On the Desirability of Desire

For some reason, there are two predominant responses when it comes to the issue of what to do with our desires. The first response is to submit to our desires and to simply go with the hedonistic flow. The second response is to repress these desires, to subvert them and to deny that they even exist. For obvious reasons, neither of these responses is particularly helpful. The former is short-sighted and fails to look to the long term interests of ourselves and others. The latter is perhaps even more problematic, because by denying the existence of our desires, we deny the existence of our humanity and even that impulse that gives us reason for being. It is this latter response that I wish to look at, since I believe that it is probably more prominent in Christian circles.

Desire is usually associated with that mysterious entity known as the "spirit" and is the sign that we do not merely exist, but exist for a reason. Without desire, our lives would soon become meaningless and we would see no reason to get out of bed in the morning. Indeed the very fact that we do get out of bed in the morning seems to suggest that we acknowledge that our existence has a reason, even if we dolefully concede this point. It is something that most of us doing instinctively rather than in a pre-meditated fashion.

Of course, as someone who has struggled and struggles with depression, I am well aware of the fact that our desires wax and wane with the tides of the sea. Life does not always seem meaningful and there does not always seem to be a reason to get out of bed. Indeed, this is the most horrible thing about depression - not the idea that one is sad, but that one is unable to find reason and meaning in existence. Life becomes a continual state of ennui and existence becomes nausea.

I would suggest that our desires are indicative of our attempts to reach out towards God. They are our unconscious attempts to cry out to the cosmos in the pursuit of transcendence. Most of the time, the root of our desires are hidden in our natural appetites, whether it be hunger, thirst for knowledge, sexual frustration, or anger. Sometimes, in the pursuit of transcendence, these desires become disordered and we see fulfilling these appetites as a means in themselves, rather than a means towards a greater end. The answer, according to Thomas a Kempis, is self-control:

So it is by resisting the desires that true peace of heart is found, not by yielding to them. That is why there is no peace is the heart of a person who is ruled by his natural desires and prisoner to externals; but there is peace in the person who is spiritually alive and ruled by spiritual standards.

We should not be ashamed of our desires - they are a sign that we are beings who not only live, but are alive. But to be truly alive, we must not be conquered by our desires. Only when our desires serve as a means towards a greater end will our desires ever be fulfilled.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Waugh's Counter-Intuitive Catholic Apologetic

When I finished Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited", I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the novel. Certainly, there is an element of tragedy involved - by the end of the story each of the characters seem to be rather broken as their ambitions and desires have failed to come to fruition. However, by Waugh's own admission, the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself". This being the case, it seems that the various tragedies that befall the characters are not meant to be the focal point of novel, but nonetheless play an important role in Waugh's theological argument.

The first thing that I noticed was that Waugh's depiction of the Catholic characters in the novel is often less than flattering. Each seems to be subject to fairly chronic personal failings. Sebastian, who is converted in his thirties seems completely incapable of beating his alcoholism. Brideshead is socially awkward and rather judgmental. Cordelia, the best intentioned of the lot, seems to be rather naive. But perhaps this is the point. Waugh is pointing out that the Church is a place for broken people; not for saints, but for sinners. In fact, Waugh seems to allude to the idea that it is only when people are brought low that faith begins to truly emerge.

The most charming element of the novel is the power of belief. Throughout most of the story, Julia is an incredibly skeptical lapsed Catholic, but the remnants of her faith remain, like glowing embers beneath the ashes. While she starts to consider that her religion may be true towards the end of the novel, it is only at the memorable deathbed scene of her father, recounted by the intensely agnostic Charles, when her faith is irrevocably restored:

'Now,' said the priest, 'I know you are sorry for all the sins of your life, aren't you? Make a sign, if you can. You're sorry, aren't you?' But there was no sign. 'Try and remember your sins; tell God you are sorry. I am going to give you absolution. While I am giving it, tell God you are sorry you have offended him.' He begin to speak in Latin. I recognised the words 'ego te absolvo in nomine Patris ...' and saw the priest make the sign of the cross. Then I knelt, too, and prayed: 'O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,' and the man on the bed opened his eyes and made a sigh, the sort of sigh I had imagined people made at the moment of death, but his eyes moved so that we knew there was still life in him.

I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign. It seemed so small thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgement of a present, a nod in the crowd. I prayed more simply; 'God forgive him his sins' and 'Please God, make him accept your forgiveness.'

So small a thing to ask.

The priest took the little silver box from his pocket and spoke again in Latin, touching the dying man with an oil wad; he finished what he had to do, put away the box and gave the final blessing. Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought he had felt the touch of the chrism annd was wiping it away. 'O God,' I prayed, 'don't let him do that.' But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

The remarkable thing about this scene is Charles' desperate desire to believe. After rejecting the Catholic faith on the basis of logic, Charles breaks down in this scene to pray to the God who may or may not exist. He finds himself swept up in the moment and starts to pray, almost against his wishes. When sanity is restored, Charles seems to be embarrassed about letting his guard down and returns to his agnosticism. However, this is not to be the last word, and some years later faith finally gets the better of him.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Some Appropriate Soul Searching Music

"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" by the immortal Robert Zimmerman.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Lectio Divina

On the weekend I was introduced to the spiritual practice of "Lectio Divina", a discipline that is said to extend back to Saint Benedict in the early sixth century. In essence, the idea is to read a passage of Scripture several times and then stop to reflect upon a word or a phrase that the Holy Spirit has brought to the attention of the reader. These reflection then lead to prayers the individual offers up to God. This is a process that is meant to transcend mere intellectual ruminations.

Reading through "Imitation of Christ today, I was struck by the words of Thomas a Kempis on the art of reading the Scriptures. He writes:

In the Holy Scriptures we must look for truth, not eloquence. All Scripture must be read in the spirit in which it is written and in the Scriptures we should look for what will help us, and not for subtle points.

Upon reflection, this makes perfect sense to me. Throughout history, the majority of the Christian population has been poorly educated and illiterate. In this sense, the idea that one can get to the deeper truth of Scriptures by clinically analysing sentence structure and grammar seems rather absurd. I suspect the authors of the books of the Bible weren't aiming for such nuances, given that they expected their message to be heard by and understood by a peasant community.

It seems to me that those who believe that they are theologically sophisticated because they analyse Scripture with what they believe to be precision miss the point completely. They are like scientists dissecting a frog - understanding the internal organs is interesting, but this doesn't change the fact that the scientist has killed the frog. Scripture is meant to be a living, breathing entity that speaks to the individual by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, not a dead entity that can conquered objectively. For these people, they want to tame Scripture and turn it into something that they possess and I suspect that the idea that Scripture may be bigger than they are might be far too confronting. Only when they subject themselves to the Holy Spirit will the Scriptures be opened up to them.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

My Evangelical Readers Will Be Jealous of Me

I have observed over the years that many evangelicals bemoan the fact that they're no good at evangelism. Either they lack the confidence to share their faith, or they never find themselves in a position to explain what they understand to be the gospel. On Friday night, I got a chance to explain the evangelical understanding of the gospel, even without trying.

To set the scene, I was heading off for a weekend away with a Catholic group and was given a lift to the venue by a girl, along with another passenger. The truth got out that I came from an evangelical upbringing, had been happily evangelical until my early twenties and that I was not yet confirmed as a Catholic. After talking about my background for a little bit longer, one of the girls asked me why a lot of Protestants didn't consider Catholics to be Christians. I outlined the evangelical understanding of the gospel, explaining that a lot of Protestants get very hung up on the idea that Catholics don't believe in salvation by grace through faith and believe that this undermines the sufficiency of Christ's work on the cross. I must confess that I gave a fairly lucid description of the gospel too, which shows that I still haven't lost any of the touch that I had when I was an evangelical myself.

If struck me that evangelicals would get my opportunities to share the gospel if they took an interest in what other people believed and did so with an open mind. Of course, if one wanted to be really cynical, one could simply feign interest, as I suspect most evangelicals do. They could merely pretend they were interested and then press towards the goal. Of course, I suspect that one will get a lot more "opportunities" if they really are interested in the Catholic faith, as I actually am. That said, since there is no room for genuine two-way dialogue in the evangelical understanding of evangelism, contrived and fabricated two-way dialogue shall have to do.

So, to my evangelical friends who are disappointed that they struggle to "share the gospel" with others, consider this: I've probably explained the evangelical gospel to more people than you lately - and I haven't even tried ...