Monday, 22 January 2018

Dying of boredom

Know not for what reason but a particular story we studied while at school keeps cropping up in my mind. Don't remember the exact title or the details.  It is a very amusing tale of a youngster who is given to laziness or thinks he is about to die or that he is already dead (I think it is the latter).  No amount of persuasion or medical checks to prove him wrong helped.  Ultimately a plan was devised.  One particular part of the house was isolated and redesigned.  It was painted white and beautifully decorated, all in white.  The youngster wakes up to find himself in this particular place all by himself.  Two persons dressed as angels appear to him and tell him that he is in heaven.  The youngster is quite happy.  However, as days go by he realizes there is nothing to do!  He can't go to visit anyone because the others live in similarly beautiful mansions quite a distance away.  As to when next he could see his family, he is told that it could take many years for them to die and reach the heavenly mansion.  A few days later he is desperate out of boredom!  He longs for some work, something to do.  When those observing him feel he has learnt his lesson, the drama is revealed. 

Lesson:  Imaginary demons are far more lethal than any actually existing ones! 
Greater lesson: Boredom is a greater curse than over-work!

Openness

Another aspect of my 'conviction bank' being brought into the docks in recent times is the notion of openness.  While I understand that having an open attitude in life is more beneficial than a closed or rigid attitude.  However, is it really possible to be open-minded all through?  I used to chuckle at the quote I came across many years ago
Don't be so open-minded that your brains fall out!  
But the point is that at sometime or the other we form a view and then stick to it. One cannot always be open to all and every different opinion or view on any matter.  Once we have taken a stand, we then can be open minded by letting it stand the test of ... whatever.  If it stands, good. If not, adopt a new stand?  If so, we'd go on changing views and convictions to no end.  So we have something fixed and other aspects flexible?  On the spectrum of fundamentalism at one end, and openness at the other, where does the middle lie? 
Or perhaps, I'm confused! 

Reason-belief rift

Only today did I commence my reading directly pertaining to my doctoral research.  Among the very many things I need to initially sort out, is this question of reason and belief. I've always considered that philosophy, at least of the modern and contemporary era, distanced itself from faith or belief.  Perhaps in the same way or as a revolt against the medieval era wherein philosophy was faith-based.  So does this mean that the ancient Greek philosophy did not have this divide of reason and belief?  Was it something that did not differentiate the two, if not juxtapose one as the antidote or opposite of the other? 

I'm now aware (though not clear how and why) that Charles Taylor in a way redefined reason in his earlier writings.  His emphasis on Plato and Augustine throws open understandings of which I've not really come across. For me those two were always a sort of 'villains' and predecessors of the Cartesian dichotomy.  In comparison to Aristotle and Aquinas, they not only maintained the divide but advocated one as better and against the other: soul better than the body, faith greater than reason... At least that's the pattern of thought I came across so far.  Perhaps our 'religious philosophy' (philosophy taught and promulgated in our formation settings) is responsible for this outlook. However over the past year, listening to the various philosophies and professors, now makes me question this.  The reading and understanding of Plato and Augustine is very different in the college circles. 

So am wondering if Plato and Augustine had much more to contribute to the discussion between reason and belief, than I preferred to read or hear about?  Charles Taylor in one of his interviews challenges, the conviction that faith does not question.  He states that we have presupposed that faith does not raise questions.  That believing means not questioning.  While I grant him that, his arguments points to something much more than mere doubts and initial curiosity.  Fides et Ratio, the encyclical of John Paul II states
Faith unmoored from reason wanders into fideism and superstition.  Reason emptied of faith, collapses into skepticism and relativism. 
But this only goes to prove that reason and belief are complementary.  But when actually did belief and reason part?  At which point did belief and reason begin to be different, leave alone opposed to each other?  

Sunday, 21 January 2018

On repentance

The story of Jonah and Nineveh is always gripping. What disturbed me today was the response or differing response of Jonah and the people of Nineveh.  Jonah is a Jew and his addressed by Yahweh himself. As a Jew he knows all too well the greatness of Yahweh and his commandments.  Knowing all of this he still makes his choice - not to comply.  So he tries to escape, is 'cornered' and then finally relents. 

On the other hand, are the people of Nineveh.  They were not Jews.  They did not know Yahweh, even if they did, it would not be as well as Jonah or the Jews. Yet when a Jew, a prophet not of their god, neither of their country, comes and calls for repentance, they immediately repent. No one, not even the king, questions Jonah's authority or identity.  They resolve to change. 

During the sermon as I reflected on this dichotomy, it occurred to me that there is more to this story than mere repentance at God's command.  Repentance is our responsibility.  God cannot make us repent!  He only brings our attention to it.  So in the case of the Ninevites, they were well aware of their wrongdoings.  They only needs a gentle word-in-the-ear.  It wouldn't have mattered if that reminder came from God or from the devil himself.  They would have repented.  Jonah on the other hand is acting stubborn.  He certainly has the right to.  He could still have been stubborn after the whale vomits him on the shore.  Perhaps he could have been stubborn all his life, denying Yahweh's command to go to Nineveh.  I don't think God would have held it against him.  However, it is interesting that when Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh, he brings about a change in the lifestyle of a whole country!  That's quite a reward for a small act of obedience.  

Friday, 19 January 2018

Of twins

In the British Salesian Province (GBR) there is a set of twins who are both Salesian priests: Francis and Hugh Preston.  Salesians from the Province know them well and can identify one from the other.  Others who know one or the other or those who have not seen them for long, are most likely to mistake one for the other.  It is said that when they were in the aspirantate, the school PET was once heard saying, "That Preston chap is of no use, but he does get around the field fast."  What he did not know was that there were two of them! 

Fr Tony Sultana, who is presently at Farnborough, is also said to have an identical twin brother.  However he is not a Salesian.  So Fr Tony is sometimes heard telling his parishioners, "If you ever see me coming out of a car with a woman, it is my twin brother!" 

Elliptical work structure

The past few days I have been visiting and interacting with different departments and sections of the university with regard to the admission, application of my visa, registration, submission of documents, application for the railcard and so on...

Looking at the number of people involved in the university, it feels like there are more staff than students (exaggerating it though). For each and every task there is a person, then a supervisor, then a head, then a coordinator, then a team and what not. However this structure is not really vertically hierarchical, rather elliptical and crisscrossing.  Compared to how we work in India, even in our Salesian circles, one-man army or at the most one-boss and just a couple of others who do everything else, this working style is just so complex. Besides everyone is very polite, willing to help or direct you to the proper person/place and efficient. No task is seen as high or low. Everyone is respected equally and no one is looked down upon. Coming from a very hierarchical structure and dominance, that's truly amazing to notice and appreciate.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Poetry

Here are some insights from the talk by Rev. Mark Oakley who spoke of poetry as the true language of religion.
  • Poetry is more about meaning than words. 
  • Poetry is not a better way of saying truth but truth is found in poetry. 
  • It is a language that hovers, rather than being logical or grounded. It is not something that can be beaten down to extract the precise meaning.  Just like story telling which commences with "Once upon a time..." poetry arrives at meaning without summarizing.  The contrast to poetry is not exactly prose but 'here is the news' attitude.  People now-a-days prefer to have 'news ears' where things are all very definite and clear, rather than live with ambiguity and openness, characteristics of poetry. 
  • Poetry is what arrives at your intellect by way of the heart. 
  • Metrophobia: fear of poetry

One of the last things he mentioned was the quote that captured his attention during one of the protests in the US: 
He stated that this is popularly considered a Mexican proverb but was originally by a gay Greek poet who wrote it as a sign of his rebellion against his companions who excluded him from the literary community for his sexual orientation.  

Hilarious invitations

The other day while listening to a lecture on Poetry being the true language of religion, the priest recalled seeing a particular church poster, put out as a means of enticing people into the church.  He said it read, "Tired of sin? Then come in!"  He then went on to say that below that poster someone had scribbled, "If not, call 4979****." 

Looking for that funny poster online, I came across a few other equally hilarious ones!


I do believe that the Church needs to make the most of advertising or advertising techniques, but these displays are hilarious!  Know not if any of these actually led anyone into a church, but it certainly would have led many closer to the Kingdom through a good laugh!

Identity and conflict

Why and when do we enter into conflict with another?  In a broader sense, why war? Among the many reasons, one prominent one is the narrowing of identity.  When we human beings reduce or narrow down our identity to something specific and identify our whole selves to just that aspect, and if that aspect is questioned or perceived as under threat, then we are bound to enter into violence or conflict.  The problem is not with trying to get a clear and specific aspect of our identity.  The narrowing down of our identity to something definite or small is not the real issue.  It is the exclusion or failure to recognise and acknowledge the possibility of other aspects that make up our complex identity that really is the problem.  As human beings we carve our identity at various levels, in different ways and through diverse situations.  We belong to a family, have a certain social or economic standing, have a set of beliefs, affiliate ourselves to different groups (age, interests, work...), hold some convictions.... To convince ourselves that among all of these one of it or some of it exclusively creates our identity is the pitfall.  While one of these or some of these could influence us more than others, there is no exclusivity.  Identity formed through association is far more healthy and helpful than when done through isolation!

Davison building at Royal Holloway

Have been back at the university since January 8, that's when I officially commenced my doctoral research studies at Royal Holloway. The new thing at the university is the completed and operational Davison building, which houses the library of the university and a couple of other offices.  The place is a real sight to behold.  The outer structure looks a bit odd but the interior is so well designed and looks grand.  There is also a special section in the library for students like me engaged in postgraduate research (of course, no fun, there! I prefer to sit with the common regular folks! But in the silent section, not the cafeteria-library). 

With the anxiety about what next and 'whether next' behind me, am all set to plunge headlong into my studies. That singular clarity and evaporation of any doubts has been a great boon and source of motivation.  

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Wittgenstein and silence

Extracts from Paul Engelman, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein with a memoir, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967, p. 97

For Wittgenstein
... what goes beyond the clearly empirical cannot be spoken of (whereof one cannot speak thereof one much remain silent), but this does not mean that what is unsayable is insignificant, or worthless. 
For the positivists what we can speak of is all that matters in life.  Whereas for Wittgenstein all that really matters in life, is precisely what we must be silent about.  
When he nevertheless takes immense pains to delimit the unimportant, it is not the coastline of that island which he is bent on surveying with multicolour accuracy, but the boundary of the ocean.  

On p. 121...
Wittgenstein account lays great stress, not on the features of the world itself, but on how it is viewed. 
He really does seem to hold the view that there is something outside language and outside the facts of the world which is of fundamental spiritual significance.
However propositions can only handle the humdrum states of affairs.  They cannot express 'what is higher'.  Words will only hold facts, just as Wittgenstein says, 'a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water even if I were to pour out a gallon over it'.  Expressing anything higher will only end up talking nonsense, but it is important nonsense (p. 121). 

God's failure

God always does the right thing. His choice is never wrong.  Therefore he always succeeds.  Wrong!  Just because He does the right thing and his choice is for the good, does not mean that God always succeeds.  He does fail.  

The choice of Saul is a perfect example.  Yahweh chooses him from among all the Israelites to be the first king of the Jews.  Yet he does not complete his life-long tenure.  Within a dozen years (biblically and historically there is no definitive proof of the exact period of his reign) he is ousted by David, again chosen by Yahweh himself.  Saul a chosen protege of God does not live up to His standards and is therefore replaced by David.  One might state that it is Saul who failed, not God.  But couldn't have God chosen a better person, someone who would not fail so quick?  After all, when God did choose Saul, he was the best in the whole of Israel.  But was he? 

We often think that God chooses the best.  Therefore they are not bound to fail or fall.  The truth is far from it.  He actually chooses the most unlikely of all people.  His choice is based not on who they will be, but who they are at that moment.  And most certainly, his measurement of 'best' is way  different our human standards.  Moses was not a real prince.  Daniel a commoner.  Saul was an obedient son.  David was a simple shepherd.  John the baptist, a mendicant.  Mary, a nobody.  His choice and assignment of responsibilities empowers them with greater possibilities of actualising their potential.  God lets them be.  He does not circumvent situations and manipulate events to prove his choice right and best all the time.  He lets the one chosen chalk out his or her way, merely assuring them His abiding presence:  "The Lord is with him/you!"

Vulnerability and community building

People often say that trust is the bonding factor in a relationship.  In religious life too trust plays a very important role in building communities and lasting bonds.  However,  I also believe that prior to trust it is vulnerability that plays a crucial role.  Not just being vulnerable but recognising and having the courage to acknowledge that vulnerability to those whom I live with.  That indeed is risky and dangerous.  But there are no short cuts to forming real relationships.

Very often we as religious are reluctant to share our vulnerabilities.  No one feels great or is pleased to share one's own weaknesses.  All our achievements and strengths are broadcast but the weaknesses and failures we keep them private.  That is natural.  But in order to gain someone's trust the best way is to share with the person something personal, so that the person feels that the other is not just mouthing good things but sharing something of his or her own self.  What often keeps us from sharing our weaknesses from one another is the fear that the other may use them against me or make them public.  Genuine fears but mostly prejudiced. 

I've seen myself the strength of confreres working together once they have bonded well.  Individually they may not be exceptionally talented or gifted but once they learn to trust each other, we complement one another and the tasks at hand become adventures.  Communities that are willing to sit and share, talk, exchange not just plans and ideas but feelings, emotions and requests for help, have a greater degree of strength and effectiveness in apostolate.  The element of witness is truly inspirational. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Darkest hour

Last night some of us from the community watched the movie Darkest hour.  It is a fine make by Joe Wright about Winston Churchill.  It is a one-man performance and a remarkable one at that too.  It is more a character sketch than a historical drama involving several characters and many twists and turns.  Seen as such, very many historical inaccuracies (such as Britain being the only one who stands up against Hitler, other countries falling like a pack of cards without any real resistance, the whole British population against surrender while only the politicians, at least those in the ruling party, seeking negotiations...) can be overlooked. 

The performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill is great.  Honestly a wonderful and remarkable transformation from Commissioner Gordon (of The Dark Knight series) to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  You simply cannot recognise that it is the same person. 

One of the most interesting dialogues that I personally liked is stated towards the end of the movie.  When the whole parliament supports Churchill's decision to stand up against Nazi invasion rather than negotiate peace with them, there are some who are very skeptical.  One of them amazed at the response Churchill's emotional speech evokes, asks the other, "What just happened?" to which Lord Halifax replies, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle!"

Google chrome not launching

This afternoon spent a good bit of time trying to resuscitate my google chrome browser.  For long there was this instruction flashing on the top stating that my browser needs updating.  So I downloaded the file and ran it using GDebi Package installer (I have a linux OS).  But after that the browser would not launch.  Click on the icon but nothing happens.  I carried out all popular and recommended measures cited (uninstall, reinstall, upgrade, restart computer...).  Even tried uninstalling and reinstalling through Terminal.  Nothing happened... till I did this (in terminal):
sudo apt-get install --reinstall libnss3

Found here
And lo and behold, chrome was up and about!  Writing this, not because I'm a computer technical geek but just as a reminder for myself and for anyone else whom it may help! Thanks to Kartik Agarwal who offered this solution. 
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