Friday, 17 May 2019

Fr Casarotti

Today is the birthday of Fr Mauro Casarotti, one of the great Salesians I have had the fortune of meeting and interacting - though not very closely - especially during my early years of formation.  I met him for the first time while in Nashik while studying philosophy.  He was actually based in Mumbai but would occasionally come to Nashik and hear our confessions.  I don't really remember much of the confessions I went to him for but remember very clearly his joyful presence along with us along the corridors of Divyadaan.  He was already very elderly then but he was a typical grandfather to all of us. 
As if that personal experience was not enough, I also heard about a very intense and tragic incident that happened during his term as provincial of Mumbai many years ago.  Hearing it first hand from the one who was at the centre of it all and how he truly felt Fr Casarotti's support, not as a provincial, but as a very loving and understanding father, made a great impression on me. 

I got to know him more closely when I was back in Mumbai Province for my communication studies in 2005 - just two years before he passed away.  I was in Matunga, the school community and he was in the Provincial house.  He was still working in the propaganda office of the Shrine and I did meet him once at his desk in the Shrine office.  But it was mostly as my confessor that I remember him during my year at Matunga.  I met him regularly in the provincial house in his room or in the parlour.  Still the same lively smile and welcoming spirit.  Age had only managed to bend his spine, slightly.  Nothing more!  For me he was like Fr John Lens.  The same spirit of generosity, openness, a kind of understanding that made me feel completely at home.  Even if there was any hesitation or doubt about whether I should ask him or speak to him about something, the moment I would meet him, all those hurdles would just vanish.  That was his simple presence.  The same for Fr Lens.  And I didn't have to explain things in detail or at length, they just understood me perfectly. 

Consider myself truly blessed for having met and lived in the time of such stalwarts of the Spirit and Salesian life!  

Religion as personal or private?

Another note on the differences between religion as personal and religion as private.  Again, a very subjective distinction. 

In viewing religion as purely private affair, one tends to feel as one 'in charge'.  Just as in the case of property owned by an individual, 'private property', one feels that one has authority over it, so in the case of treating religion as private, one feels that one is in authority.  Unfortunately not every aspect of religion can be so 'subjugated'.  There are aspects of religion wherein one cannot be considered to be in the driving seat.  Being open to that possibility, in a sense being passive, is part of the nature of religion. 

Furthermore, any experience of the supernatural cannot be actually 'contained'.   If genuine, it naturally flows into every aspect of one's life.  Any attempt to contain it, restrict it merely to oneself, is one of the offshoots of viewing religion as private.  In the same vein, viewing religion as private tends to exclusivity (my religion and me; or my God and me) whereas when viewed as personal, there is greater openness towards inclusivity (my religion, me and all of us within a larger reality; or my God and me in the world).  

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Religion: Private or personal?

Is practice of religion, something private or personal?  I've not really studied the dictionary and the etymological meaning of the two words but feel that there can be a distinction drawn for clarity.  Most often, the developed world tends to keep religion to the private.  That's something not to be paraded about in the open.  Unfortunately I feel this should be the attitude of theistic countries!  Countries and places where the unholy mix of religion and politics breeds nothing but vice! 

I would rather look at religion as something personal.  This way, principles and convictions one lives by are something totally of the individual and not something enforced by him or her or enforced upon one - in the name of religion.  These are matters which guide and direct one in ones life.  Keeping religion private would mean something hidden and secretive.  That festers fermentation and is bound to explode sooner or later.  Treating religion as personal does not mean that it is hidden or totally out of bounds for anyone - it remains open to challenges, by the individual himself/herself, by the society, by anyone.  The concerned individual need not respond to all the challenges thrown at him or her.  But that the individual is open enough to review those challenges.  That openness is obliterated if religion is treated as purely private. 

The acid test for this is to ask if one's experience of God (one of the integral aspects of religion) is personal or private.  In both the cases, it is a one-to-one relationship.  However if the former, it shades and affects everything else the individual does.  If the latter, the affects of that experience will be buried deep within the individual and nothing of that experience will ever flow into (or from) the rest of one's living - a clear watertight inner experience!  

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Vertically challenged

In the age where every form of appearance and difficulty is sometimes exaggerated, not so often by those whom it really is about, but by those around, I came across this amusing dialogue...

Lady to her dietician: What I am worried about is my height and not my weight.
Doctor: How come?
Lady: According to my weight, my height should be 7.8 feet!


Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Urgency

Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Dominic Savio and today in the first reading of the Mass it was Stephen, the young man, who challenged the elders and priests of the times accusing them of murdering Jesus.  Both youngsters in the prime of their life.

In both of them one gets to see a sort of urgency.  A strange kind of recklessness.  No compromises. Nothing short of what is decided.  In Stephen's case, he does not resort to any diplomacy or sugar-talk in dealing with the elders of his time.  His words are direct and brave.  He is not waiting for the Romans to intervene and bring to justice those who falsely accused Jesus and put him to death.  He boldly attacks them, face to face. 

Some may call it imprudence.  Others may call it the power of the Spirit.  Whatever it be, it is a typical youth response: passionate, fearless and uncompromising. 

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Advertising vs election campaigning

Advertising of products and services is actually to 'seduce' the customer in a race against competitors who are out to outdo oneself, by way of quality and quantity. 

Election campaigning, although a form of advertising, is different.  It differs in as much as the race is not to outdo the other in quality or quantity of service.  It is basically to offer possibilities of the least corrupt of all available possibilities.  It is about downgrading the other, rather than an endorsement of evident progress.  One gets to promise the moon and advertise fake achievements. 

Advertising leads consumers to choose the most useful from the best options.  Election campaigning is all about bluffing the electorate into choosing the least corrupt of the worst options!  

Election campaign

India just witnessed a massive wave of election campaigning in view of the ongoing national elections.  In parts of UK local council elections were held yesterday.  The whole notion of campaigning before elections is a global phenomena.  Nothing new or strange about it.  Really??

I find this concept of campaigning, especially the amount of time, energy, personnel, resources, and finances spent on it, ridiculously irritating.  If only they were spent on actual progress and fulfillment of the party agendas, none would require any campaigning!  That's my simple reasoning.  That minor parties or those who haven't yet had the opportunity to show their expertise need campaigning is something I perfectly agree with and whole-heartedly support.  But others, especially those already in the limelight, the opposition and mainly the ruling party or candidates, really need not do anything other than their best during their tenure.  People who actually see the good they do, will naturally vote for them based on their past performance.  The very fact that they spend sleepless nights canvassing and advertising and doling out speeches and promises, during the election campaigning, is an obvious proof that they haven't really done their best during their time in power.  If they honestly do their best when they actually have the possibility and power to do so, all that they need to say or point to, prior to elections,(if at all) is already evident achievements! Not bloated figures or promises.  And certainly not the drawbacks or failings of others (one does that when one does not have anything good to say about oneself!).  If only politicians would work as hard and as dedicatedly as during their campaigning spree, while in office or tenure, progress and growth would automatically appeal to the voter. 

Unfortunately I think the general population is still too naive and fickle.  Politicians aware of this weakness, make the most of it, for a couple of months and then rest for years to come!  

Friday, 3 May 2019

Exam invigilation

Am truly thrilled to have applied for and got the opportunity to invigilate during the ongoing university exams.  The very feeling of being amidst young people, especially in one of their most tense and anxious moments of student life, and being there as a friend, a helper and someone who can ease all that cramping, even if it is just a little... that's great. 

Apart from the adventure this morning, it has been a thrilling experience of being exactly that helper.  It has also been a great source of amusement.  Watching them come in the hall or room, all tensed and some not even breathing and then leave the hall with a sense of achievement and relief;  seeing them break into a smile when offered with a kind suggestion or a timely help or even a simple smile;  observing the variety of ways in which they hold the pen while writing (quite a few write holding the pen straight and their wrist bent 90!);  the fear of having forgotten their ID card or their exam candidate number or messing up the adhesive slip, right in the beginning of the exam, being alleviated by a simple gentle assurance "No worry, we'll help you with that!" and the relief that floods their face;  the 'wonder' at a couple of youngsters who walked in the exam hall and coolly ask for a pen straight away, for they had forgotten to bring one!  or at that youngster who called out for me today to ask, "What's the date?"  Then there are the multiple ways in which they sit: some as stiff as an arrow, others literally with their head on the writing desk, some at a weird angle or twist of their body, some with their feet stretched to the maximum or folded or one flung over the other or under their bottom. 

The amusement only adding to the thrill of putting them at ease and making them feel comfortable...! 

Romanian mosquito

Heard a story about a Romanian mosquito today...

Invigilating an exam hall of 241 students this morning was quite an adventure!  Ultimately had to report and pull up one youngster who had notes on him all along.  Initially I made sure that he was being watched.  But he continued peeking at the notes tucked in his jacket sleeve.  Then under the pretext of the hall already being warm, got him to hand me his jacket.  He did and I was pretty sure with that move I had taken away his means of cheating.  By this time, he knew that I knew!  Within 15 minutes I again noticed him fiddling with his shoe.  Very soon I saw him with (another?) note.  Going against all instructions and regulations I went upto him and gently whispered to him, "Either you stop it or hand it to me!"  From his indication, I gathered he would not resort to it again.  By this time I had already informed the supervisor of the hall that I was suspicious of him. 

No sooner I moved away from him, he was at it again!  This time round I informed the supervisor that he certainly had notes on him and that he knew that I was aware, and that he was carrying on referring to them, in spite of my gentle verbal warning.  I was told to keep a close eye on him.  Towards the end of the two hour exam I was asked to inform him to stay back after the exam.  I left an official note on his desk to stay hack after the exam.  An official from the student administration was there by the end. She asked me what happened and I was given a form to fill up.  The student was then interviewed and she found the notes exactly where I told her he had it: in his left shoe. 

After the whole episode, it took almost an hour for me to get over it.  I was feeling bad for having done it.  Not that I regretted doing it - but just that the lad seemed so desperate to copy.  I know not what action would be taken against him.  None in the exam invigilation team or the student administration were sure.  "It was not our job," they said, "to worry about the end of the process."  They were very impressed by my work in that large hall, especially this particular case - but I told them, it was no merit!  In fact, I said I was sorry for having to do it. None-the-less I did it - and would do it again, if necessary.  My reasoning was simple: Going against regulations, I warned him twice (the latter being direct and verbal).  In spite of that if he was brazen about the act, he should also be ready for the consequences.  He needed help and I did help him - first by trying to prevent him, then by directly telling him and finally by making him accountable. 

And yes, the story he tried to tell me when I led him to the toilet, halfway through the exam... "If you saw me scratching my wrist, that was because I was recently on a trip to Romania and there a mosquito bit me.  That's what was itching me!"  Well, I hope he did not tell the Admin officer that the same Romanian mosquito wrote and put that slip of paper in his sleeve or shoe too!  

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

In the right direction?

Returning from the conference at Oxford I was wondering if I'm wrong or my thought invalid because my line of research is not in any way being reflected or considered in any of the discussions being carried out in the circles of philosophy of language.  Those who heard out my research interests understood what I was upto, a couple of them showed some excitement, but most had no response really.  So the three days there was a bit of a soul-searching or I should say, 'research-searching', as to whether I'm doing anything worthwhile at all?  Or is it that everyone is thinking in one line and I'm moving in another direction altogether? 

However, while on my way back home, on the train, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps that very 'absence' of my research is actually a very good thing.  That means nobody, at least those whom I've met so far, is thinking in line of what I'm thinking.  Well, isn't that a very positive thing for a PhD research topic! 

Some consolation... now got to start writing!  

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Digesting warm up

Games and sports were always part of the school tradition.  Especially in a Salesian school. All the more in a formation house.  However, not so long ago, games were considered a luxury by most rural folk in India.  Only those who were wealthy would indulge in such pastime activities.  

I distinctly remember a pioneer of the seminary at Kondadaba narrating the surprise and the bewilderment of the local population when the first seminarians (under the guidance of the Salesians) would spend every evening an hour, playing.  So to warm up they'd run around the seminary, do a bit of stretching in front and then start the game, mostly football or volleyball.  Initially the villagers would stop on their way back home from their fields and watch this whole 'amusing' phenomenon.  Being a totally rural setting, and literally slogging all day long in the fields, the notion of organised games, that too daily, was something too much for them to take in.  Slowly they understood the game part of it, but they never really understood the logic of the warm up sessions.  One of the early seminarians once told me, that he once overheard a conversation of farmers working in the field as the Brothers were doing the warm up.  One of the farmers asked the other, what these youngsters were up to and one replied, "తిన్నది ఆరగడానికి !" (They're running around to digest what they've eaten!)

Was reminded of this comment about warm up when we were doing our stretching exercises before and after the walks to Walsingham.  

Pavement flowers

Last year I carefully gathered the seeds of violas and pansies and planted them this year.  Not one has sprouted, yet.  On the other hand, I'm coming across these same plants peeking out in all odd places: in the centre of the lawn, under the garden gate, even one right in front of the main door growing between the tiny space between two paving slabs! 

Formation and knowledge

Reading this particular article on Aeon about walking and applying the philosophy of Gilbert Ryle to it, I was wondering if this can be applied to the whole process of formation and that particular phase of intellectual formation too.

Just a handful of us formators back in the province believe that a student discerning his vocation to priestly or religious life ought to have a rather meaningful and sensible intellectual capacity.  Lacking in which he or she will make things and life miserable for others and themselves - the exact opposite of what ministry seeks to do in service of the people! Most formators feel that intellectual capacity should not be a major factor to be considered when deciding whether a person continues being a religious or priest or not. 

Ryle seems to suggest that if self-teaching is activated, that would suffice for improving a skill. 
We can think about Ryle’s view as a middle way between the just-do-it view and intellectualism. Intellectualism claims that skilled action requires thought, and gives a picture of thought as deliberate, conscious internal activity. The just-do-it view observes that it is not plausible that skill requires this kind of conscious thinking, and concludes that thought is the enemy of skill. Ryle agrees with the just-do-it view that conscious thought is not a requirement of skill, but offers an alternative view of thinking as engaged problem solving, claiming that this kind of thought is a requirement of skilled action.
If I'm reading it right, Ryle would say that just because is a person is kind and considerate, does exempt him or her from engaging in a very intellectual exercise of thinking. Nonetheless, to actually continue being kind and considerate and develop it as a skill rather than blindly repeat certain kind actions and utterances, a particular kind of thought is essential. 

One need not be an expert in oceanography to be a priest or religious but if one is not competent to reflect on ones own ministry and willing to make sufficient effort to learn from it, even if already 'good' at it, then one certainly is not worthy of becoming a priest or religious. Openness and humility to learn, require a certain kind of thinking to actualize and bear fruit.  

Taylor and walking

Just when I thought I need to get back to my reading and writing on my research, what should I come across? A quote of Charles Taylor on the phenomenology of walking!! Just couldn't believe my eyes when I read it!  Nothing great about the quote itself, just that it connects two things uppermost in my mind, right now: walking and Taylor! Came across it in an article on Aeon, and it is about walking!
As I navigate my way along the path up the hill, my mind totally absorbed anticipating the difficult conversation I’m going to have at my destination, I treat the different features of the terrain as obstacles, supports, openings, invitations to tread more warily or run freely, and so on. Even when I’m not thinking of them, these things have those relevances for me; I know my way about among them.
Taylor surely has touched upon practically everything under the Sun!

Why walk?

One of the questions I have been asking myself regarding the walk I'd done over the last week is whether it was worthwhile to physically feel so much as to jeopardize my participation in the Paschal liturgy meaningfully? 

When at times your legs are so aching that you cannot think of anything else, prayer and divine contemplation is not something that comes easily.  You are not interested in it at all.  All you want to do is get into a comfortable posture and relax.  Prayer and worship go out of the window.

On the other side, I noticed this peculiar phenomenon, not only about myself but about practically everyone in the group.  No matter how much we were tired individually, when there was a need for something to be seen to or done, there were always people ready and willing.  Not grudgingly but with a contagious enthusiasm. 

As for prayer and connecting with the Divine, I realised that feeling of being in pain was a great leveller.  None of us participating in the liturgy or even sitting quietly in the Church or on the pavement were any better or different from one another, and most importantly from the one whom we were trying to think about.  My tiredness and aches in themselves linked me with Jesus.  I was not thinking about Jesus or praying to Him, I was feeling like Him! Even for one attempting to widen the scope of meaning and language (as part of my PhD), to include feelings and desires, this 'realization' did not come easy.  

Monday, 22 April 2019

The fun side of the pilgrimage

One of the amusing and very weird experiences all along the journey of the Students' cross was getting used to the language of the event.  Being a very old tradition with its own rules, set practices and even terminology, it was interesting to hear and be part of it.

For instance, the whole exercise of carrying the cross.  All in a very orderly fashion, the way we actually carry it, pass it on, without breaking step, rejoin the column, the traffic marshals steering the column, especially on busy junctions or road crossings, the short commands ('Collapse the cross', 'tight column', 'splay across the verge', 'Three on the cross') and actions (raised hand on traffic junctions, tapping the heads by the cross bearers during silence...) along the route.  Then there was this unique set of words, entrenched in the Students Cross tradition, that I just couldn't get over with:

  • Cross dressing!  During a pilgrimage?  Really?  The first time I heard that this was to happen once we reach the final stop (Walsingham), I thought it was a joke. But everyone was serious about it.  Only later did I come to know that the word actually meant, 'decorating the cross'!  
  • GOD.  I first came across this word on a list that I was passing on to someone.  The title of that page was 'Information about Walsingham to GOD'.  I thought there must have been some typing error.  And then on our first day, I heard people speak about God possibly visiting us along the journey.  I thought they were spiritually motivating us walkers.  On our second day, before we dispersed to bed, the leader called out saying that there were 'jobs' God wanted us to do.  Well, by then I had learnt that God referred to General Organising Director.  The use of the abbreviation is a tradition and by now a very clear and commonly used word among the old-timers.  But for new comers like me, every time we heard a sentence like "God is doing the first reading from the book of Genesis" our minds would take a couple of seconds to ask the ears, if we heard it right.  Imagine the laugh I had when I saw on the programme sheet, 'Nominations for GOD' and my amusement on Saturday while watching the 'election of GOD'!  

Being my first outdoor overnight activity for the first time in this country I noticed the way people come prepared for it.  Replete with an inflatable mattress, sleeping bag, inflatable pillows, electrical blowers to inflate these inflatables, earplugs (to block out snoring companions!), creams (one for the face, one for the sun, another for cold, one for the lips...gosh, the list is too long and hilarious!), hats, caps, jackets, jumpers, shoes (walking shoes, water-proof shoes, pub/casual shoes, Mass shoes...), first-aid kit (each one had one!) ... all of this besides the normal travel necessities. 

What now?

During the students cross walk, especially towards the end, there was always this question on everyone's lips, "Would you be coming next year too?"  I honestly did not have an answer to that.  Neither did I want to have one immediately.  I basically want to let the experience sink in and then see it from a distance and then arrive at a decision about it being worthwhile the effort or not. 

One of the reasons I am not very keen about joining for such physically gruelling tasks of piety is that these are more like sprints in athletics.  Short bursts of activity which are considered sports, while the normal walking and running around in daily life are not considered sports!  I hold spirituality to be an everyday affair, not only the scattered spurts of excitement and then back to normalcy (non-holy days!). 

On the other hand, I never really signed up for this as an religious act or Lenten penance!  The fact that I got to be with young people (even it is it only those who are already 'faith-filled'), in their chosen moment, is something refreshing for me as a Salesian. That I could share with young people my life experience and faith journey and in turn be part of theirs is indeed a great privilege. 

In evaluating the event itself, I certainly wish to see how much it has impacted me prior and later as well.  A decision based on the event itself is not a balanced decision.  

With the young

Perhaps the best thing of my experience of the Students' Cross, that immediately comes to my mind, is the time interacting with the youngsters for practically a whole week, especially during the journey.  By the end of the day, with my feet aching so much, I barely could pray.  Beyond my feet, my mind, could not think or feel any divine inspiration!  But observing the youngsters in the group and listening to them, often their deepest personal experiences and aspirations was a good reminder of being a Salesian. 

The fact that they knew each other or at least had common friends because of whom getting to know those whom they had never met before, was pretty fast, as fast as snapping one's fingers.  That really bonded the group almost instantly.  Most of the youngsters were very very pious and highly determined about undertaking this gruelling walk in its entirety.  Most were also first time walkers.  I could clearly see that they had their 'need' for undertaking this walk pretty clear and pressing - even if not all shared that with me. 

'Unfortunately' they were all from very devout families and had a thorough Christian upbringing.  In that sense devotion was not something they had 'acquired' by themselves - they were brought up in it.  Nonetheless, their effort at understanding it and living by it was something very very amazing for me.  They were very convinced of why they were doing it.  I knew for sure that some of them were really struggling to walk towards the end of the day - just as I was - but it was as if the option of sitting it out for a while or giving it up was never there.  There were times that I really wished to take a break, though never felt that tired to give it up entirely.  But none of them seemed to even entertain that thought! It was as if they were just walking!  Moreover not one of them was moaning about their pains and aches.  Contrary to complaining they actually were cheerful - and chirpy - all day and night long!

One of the things that saddened me a bit was that there were no youngsters in the whole lot of pilgrims (300 or so) who was there to really 'explore' one's faith and devotion. Given that our group was the only other group which had new comers - that too a sizeable number - I gather that it was almost like fishing in a water tank!  That does not discount in any way the courage and depth of each of those youngsters who undertook the pilgrimage.  But it does raise the question of why don't other youngsters, especially native youngsters for whom faith is something not offered in families or at home, undertake this journey? Perhaps those who did try it are already hooked on to it and are now returners.  Perhaps they have found other more meaningful ways of living out their faith and devotion.  Or perhaps faith itself is not something that makes sense to them.  

The meaninglessness of the cross

As part of the Student Cross walk we carried a 35 kg cross ahead of us all along the journey.  We took turns carrying it in 3s. 

Trying to gather in the 'harvest' of this pilgrimage that I undertook, I was wondering what role did the cross play in this whole episode.  Primarily it was I guess a re-enactment of the way of the cross Jesus was made to walk.  Then there is the witness value - people watching us know what exactly are we doing and who we are.  And then the whole idea of sharing in the suffering and pain of Jesus himself. 

However, what nags me about the whole cross was what we did after we reached our destination!  We literally abandoned it.  We propped it up against the wall and then on Saturday some of our group members decorated it with flowers - that's because it was part of the tradition.  So I'm asking myself, why did we carry the cross?  If it was witness value, we could very well do better than that.  Merely carrying the cross in that sense would be no better than a fashion show cake walk.  Just to show others.  But what use did others have of this 'show'? 
Linda, Melbin, Neetu, Lessly, George, David
Andrea, Saju and Sijo
with the decorated cross
Perhaps this inability to find the sense in the act of carrying the cross stems from a deeper question I've been asking myself:  What 'use' or help has this act of mine undertaking this physically tiring journey, has been to others?  Self-inflicted torture with apparently no benefit for anyone else... how meaningful and useful is that?  Is this truly a Christian expression of love and sacrifice?

Well I may be too close to the event itself, to really see the whole picture, but for now I'm letting the experience of the past week just sink in.  

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Extra scrubbing

Returning from a very different experience of the Student Cross walk, having walked 65 miles for three days without a shower, I truly feel like the parents of Dennis... (Most of us in the group were like Dennis, all along the way... completely oblivious of our own stench!)  However, the weather was great and although tiring, the experience was just great!

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Reading sentence

Came across the following article this morning:  A judge 'sentencing' a bunch of kids with a 'reading list' rather than a normal custodial sentence.
The sentence I gave was harsher than what they would normally have received. Normally it would just be probation which would mean checking in with a probation officer once a month and maybe a few hours of community service and writing a letter to say sorry. Here they had to write 12 assignments and a 3,500-word essay on racial hatred and symbols in the context of what they'd done… It was a lot of work. (Alejandra Rueda, the judge, who drew up the list of 35 books). 
Children learn fast.  And depending on what they are taught, they become that!  Teach them to share and care, to value life and respect everyone, they become exactly that.  And teaching does not mean a classroom mode of lecture.  It is about helping them learn and form convictions for life.

And here's a list of the 12 (of the 35) books the teenagers were told to read and write about, one per month:

  1. Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
  2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
  3. The Tortilla Curtain - T C Boyle
  4. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  6. 12 Years a Slave - Solomon Northup
  7. The Crucible - Arthur Miller
  8. Cry the Beloved Country - Alan Paton
  9. My Name is Asher Lev - Chaim Potok
  10. Exodus - Leon Uris
  11. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
  12. Night - Elie Wiesel


Feel a bit guilty and ashamed to state that I've read only 2 of these!  

Before the cock crows....

The prophecy of Jesus that Peter will deny him thrice within a few hours of the night and Peter's initial denial of it is one of the Lenten themes that comes up often, especially in the Holy Week.  We also read that Peter 'wept bitterly' when this prophecy does come true. 

We are all like St Peter.  Or Peter too was a mortal, simple human being just like any of us.  He was not even an educated man or an aristocrat.  He was a common man.  And like most people, when faced with a life-threatening situation, he chose the easiest and safest way out: denial and lies. 

Sometimes I wonder what if Peter had not lied about his identity and affiliation with Jesus that night.  Most probably the mob would surely have vented some of their anger towards him and in an extreme situation Peter would have met the same fate as did Jesus, right then and there along with Jesus on Calvary.  Who then would have become the 'leader'? 

Peter's denial of Jesus that night saved his life.  He goes on to become the anchor of the early Christian community.  Though not with faults and weaknesses, people look up to him and respect his decisions.  Even a learned man like Paul tries to help Peter see his point and abide by his decision, rather than declare rebellion and independence stating, 'I'm not going to follow an ignorant fisherman!'  Imagine if Paul were the first Pope! (My hunch is that it would have been catastrophic for the Church - then and now!) Jesus in His wisdom chose a down-to-earth, common man, with all the virtues - and vices - of an ordinary human being, to be the head of the Church... much like Pope Francis in our times!  

Monday, 15 April 2019

Thank you walk!

Embarking on the pilgrim walk with the students tomorrow, I honestly don't have any aspirations.  Just want to get out of the house and do something useful.  Perhaps somewhere hidden there is also the 'religious' feeling of doing something for Lent!  Most importantly look forward to being with young people and listening to them, more with the heart than the ears alone! 

I know and keep telling myself that it will be physically excruciating, especially given the fact that I've not been on the road, walking enough.  But I hope the sense of walking as a pilgrim group will make up for the deficient physical stamina.  The following week conference in Oxford too, will involve quite a bit of walking from Cowley to the venue and the railway station itself.  So in all, the coming two weeks are dedicated to walking! 

Even though it is the Holy Week and the Easter week (later), I cannot get myself to tell the Lord that it is for Him that I'm walking! I'm not!  So, as I ask myself what intention do I dedicate this walking to, I say: Thank you Lord! Thanks for everything, especially all the wonderful people in my life who continually love, cherish and nourish me!  Bless them all! For them all, I gladly undertake what you have for me in store, in the two weeks ahead.  

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Pilgrim walk

As part of the preparation for the 3-day pilgrim walk during the Holy Week, there is a long list of requirements and instructions issued.  I understand it has been something that has been formulated based of years of walking experience - or rather bad experiences! However, everytime I'm reminded of it by way of mail or through phone (from a couple of friends or confreres) I am a bit amused.  While all of them are concerned that things should not be too difficult or bad for a first-timer like me, I think taking all necessary precautions and carrying along all kinds of things, only takes the spirit out of the Holy Week walk. 

If Jesus were given all these instructions prior to his journey to Calvary, it would have been a different salvation story!  The way of the cross would not have been too tough a walk with a sleeping bag, anti-blister cream and plaster, bottle of hot water, comfortable walking shoes, necessary warm clothes for the journey, cash for evening refreshments, raincoat (in the eventuality of rain), one cap for the rain, another for the sun...!

Anyway look forward to this walk along with students.  

Touch

Last night I drove Fr Sean to St Dunstan's Parish, Woking for the reconciliation service and confessions.  During the service the priest sharing a homily mentioned about the creation narrative and therein spoke of how God used his hands to create human being while the others came about by his mere word. 

It struck me for that difference never occurred to me before.  All the 5 days of creation mentioned in the Bible (Genesis), God is merely commanding and things appearing.  On the sixth day he 'fashions' man (and woman) from the earth with his own hands and then breathes his own breath into them. 

Reminded me of how important the feeling of touch is for us human beings.  It is that feeling of being touched, cradled, kissed and carried close to the bosom that actually nurtures human infants.  Those bereft of these basic forms of human contact tend to miss out a great bit of nourishing.  The baby knows by mere touch its own mother.  The crying infant calms down when its own mother holds it close to her heart - the child recognizing the heartbeat. 

Though the priest did not dwell much on this notion of touch (with him merely mentioning it only once), I find it odd that the whole English culture is averse to touch!  Generally people don't touch and don't like being touched.  I understand the whole area of personal space, respect for the body and the danger of sexual predators.  Nonetheless there is a sort of paranoia which isn't really helpful.  

Young at heart

Today is the first death anniversary of Fr Peter Dooley.  Remembering him yesterday after supper, at table, the confreres were talking of an incident that happened many years ago when he was in the Parish at Highton, near Bootle.  Him and another priest in the Parish were once tied up in the house and robbed.  The next day the newspapers too reported this robbery.  And both were very upset... not because they were robbed but because the news item began thus: "Two elderly people were robbed..." Both of the priest, who were in their 70s felt bad that they were referred to as 'elderly'! 

Friday, 12 April 2019

One amusing clip (Telugu)

Was flipping through some youtube videos and then suddenly came across the following one from an old Telugu movie.  Remembered well Mariadas imitating Brahmanandam during our stay and especially journey back to Hyderabad from Shillong.  This scene was the one we would all begin to laugh at the very mention of 'Peddareddy'!!
I want to talk to Peddareddy, right now! 

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Brexit and black hole

Almost fell over laughing when I picked up The Times this morning.  The photo and the title was simply amazing.  For the past few months, every news channel and paper has been dogged by Brexit news!  The first ever photo of the black hole, too was swallowed into this Brexit drama...
Truly what a title! ... and here's another inescapable black hole... That's one piece of great journalistic talent!

The news article beside it is part of the unfolding Brexit drama or saga!
As an 'outsider' not really affected by this whole ongoing process of Brexit, it is fun to watch.  However, when I think of all those businesses and people whose livelihood depends on trade relations between the European Union and the UK, this stalemate is very agonising.  With politicians squabbling and offering no clear direction to proceed in, all these people living their lives on or across the borders have a hard time deciding what next to do.  That this is the case with one of the best developed countries in the world, makes this scenario all the more pathetic - and comical!  

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Lenten mornings

My meditation moments in the morning are perhaps the only 'Lenten practices' I'm having this season.  Compared to the liturgical and paraliturgical practices that abound our days and timetables back in India, here it is a moment of personalization.  That way, all those practices of piety for Lent I've been used to (and partially faithful to) all over the years have fallen off the radar!  Does that make me less of a Christian? Do I feel less like a Christian? I wouldn't claim that at no time have I felt a sense of guilt of having 'given up' Lent, for Lent!  But the feeling is only that I've given up certain ways of living and practicing Lent.  Does the 'new' way make me a better Christian?  Neither would I claim that! 

But one thing I certainly feel convinced about: personal luxury - be that of material things or of time - certainly does not really help in living a Christian life.  No wonder why Christian teaching is so much related and rooted in poverty.  So I basically keep asking myself what do I need to do, be or say, to love more.  To begin with at least let me not envy or grudge others around me.  I know that's not the ideal, but at least not receding (even if it means remaining stagnant for now), is better than falling back to ways and means of making myself feel good but not actually being and becoming more human!

Even though most of the times it is blabbering and often totally confused and distracted, morning meditation is perhaps the only thing most sensible I have as of now.  

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Listen to God's people

Today is the death anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the courageous Christian who bore witness to what it means to be a follower of Christ, through his life, writings and even his death.  It is said that he was sentenced to death on April 8, 1945 and executed the very next day for being part of the group that tried to plot Hitler's assassination.

For my meditation today... a quote of his:
The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them,” he wrote. “Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word but also lends us God’s ear. . . . We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.
Coming from a man who had the opportunity and actually did leave Germany (for New York) in those troubled times of 1939, only to return within a month, asking oneself what merit would it be if he was not with his countrymen in their darkest hour, this quote makes all the difference between life and death!   

Thursday, 4 April 2019

End of the world

A man rushed around the town announcing solemnly and with great urgency, "It's official!  It is the end of the world!" 

At the town centre, when this announcement was made, those in the Church ran out to the pub next door and those from the pub ran into the Church! 

So much for conversion!  

Why philosophy?

By way of specialisation, every course designed at the higher education level is meant for a particular profession.  So if one is studying computer science, one intends to become a computer specialist.  One studying physics, a sort of scientist.  One studying history, goes into library sciences, archiving, writing, perhaps even into teaching.  It is more evident in arts: a music student gets into the music industry; one studying media, gets into that particular stream of work.  Generally!  Though no rule that one should choose a career only based on what one has studied!  

However, I think philosophy is the only subject or course, that is undertaken by students for no particular single profession.  Of those who opt for philosophy, just a handful of them enter into academia.  The rest, what do they do?  Or why do people study philosophy?  No one undertakes a philosophy course to become a philosopher - certainly not most!  

Perhaps the answer to this lies in the fact that philosophy is a discipline rather than a content-based course.  It actually enables one to evaluate, explore and enact what is most relevant, not just about concepts and texts but in life as well.  As such, philosophy assists any and every field of work or profession.  That can actually be the greatest strength - and also the worst quality - one can acquire studying philosophy.  

Priests and religious who have this 'compulsory' study of philosophy, indeed are greatly privileged.  But unfortunately are the worst prepared or ready for it, by way of willingness. And thereby the ones who make the least use of it. 

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Diversifying syllabus

One of the presenters at the Symposium on Diversifying curriculum in the multi-cultural context of the UK, spoke of their department's attempt to understand that there are nuances in this endeavour.  She pointed out that to

  • democritize - to go beyond the elite
  • diversity - go beyond the white
  • decentralize - go beyond the Western
  • decolonize - involve local experience and have a multi-dimensional approach, or in the least be critical of prevailing popular sources

It was interesting to note that, in the context of teaching history, she stated that doing one does not automatically mean doing all the other too!

As I listened to the various points spoken about, I felt how greatly philosophy, a subject dealing with critical outlook, can help in this endeavour.  That philosophy content itself needs to be filtered through these biases, is a task not less important!

There were also proposals of how we can ask and get the students to suggest authors or ideas they wish to discuss form a small portion (perhaps the concluding part) of the lecture series.  Thus their preferences or likes of their own background or interest could resonate in the curriculum.  Another aspect was a thorough review of the sources, especially primary sources, cited as part of the reading for a particular course undertaken.

Besides the points I gathered from the symposium, I thought the aspect of a conscious and continuous process of self-awareness regarding the biases and perspectives from which I, the educator, carries out the task of teaching (and learning), forms a very fundamental aspect of this diversification.  It could be as simple as being conscious of the vocabulary that I use, the examples I quote, the authors or ideas I refer to... This personal awareness does go a long way in creating a sensitive and inclusive classroom ambiance, especially with regard to the syllabus.  

Involve children in addressing childrens' issues

After many days and many articles and interventions suggested to encounter the growing knife-crime involving teenagers and youngsters in London, I found one article quite sensible and far-sighted in today's The Times (April 3, 2019).

The author Alice Thomson, in her article 'To beat knife crime, listen to the children', advocates involving the children in addressing the issue rather than excluding them altogether, and treating them as mere recipients of a service!
... we can't just blame the police or teachers or the internet giants; what these children really need... is an alternative to gang life that gives them status.
After listing all the possible solutions offered and debated thus far, she adds specific measures involving directly the children rather than teachers, police and the media.  
... the answer is to provide the young with opportunities rather than deterrents and to include them in finding solutions, rather than leaving it to the politicians to squabble.
We need to give them stable structures and purpose, help them at school with entrepreneurial skills that are useful, give them jobs they can do in their teens and be better role models when they don't have family support. 
Most importantly we need to listen to the vulnerable young rather than seeing them all as just an additional out-of-control, dangerous problem to add to our other woes.  
I'm sure Fr TD John and those involved in PAR, me included, will certainly agree with Alice!  

Teaching

George Bernard Shaw among his many quotes is also believed to have stated
The one who can, does; he who cannot teaches.  
On the face of it, this quote appears very damning for the teaching profession.  It basically degrades teaching to incapacity to actually do anything worthwhile.  However, one speaker at today's Teaching and learning symposium pointed out that if one is to really study this quote in its actual context, the meaning changes radically. 

The quote appears in the context of revolution and rebellion.  A few lines after this quote is where he explicitly states that activities are great source of learning.  The actual meaning can therefore mean, that one who has the capacity is directly involved in the work.  But one who cannot, for whatever reason be directly at the forefront of leading a revolution, can as a teacher, prepare others to become leaders!  A teacher, in that sense, is one who shapes and moulds leaders. 

Of course, none will ever dispute the fact that teaching is no business; when committed, teaching is a passionate service and a humble sacrifice, a noble one at that!  

Diversifying curriculum

I attended a teaching and learning symposium at the Uni today.  The theme was diversity and employability.  The first three talks on diversity were good: more questions than answers.  On the positive side a step further for the better.  But the actual fact: not much of a move away from a very colonial or racial mindset. 

I distinctively remember my agitated mood when I finished my interview at the Philosophy department in Madras University in 2016, where I went to explore if I could initiate my PhD there.  The panel of professors were very clear and adamant that I should do/study Indian philosophy alone.  They were so fixated on it that, at the end of the meeting, I was greatly tempted to ask, "Where is the department of Western philosophy?"  It was with a great amount of self-control that I restrained myself. 

I guess it is the same mentality here in the West.  That philosophy stemming from the Greek tradition is the only 'philosophy'.  What about the equally ancient and profound thoughts around the world, especially of the two great Indian and Chinese traditions?  Does that not count as philosophy?  I understand no university can cover all the philosophical traditions of the world, certainly not giving equal importance to all, but to go about as if thoughts of the Greek heritage are the only worthy philosophical topics and authors, is certainly impoverishing oneself. 

One of the philosophy professors who spoke, mentioned of him designing a new course for philosophy undergraduates including prominent Islamic thinkers from the middle-east.  So far so good.  But why did he choose those thinkers and what thought of theirs? That which actually stemmed from Western thought or later fed into the European thinking.  What of the remainder of their thoughts or contribution?  That did not feature at all!  Such cosmetic changes, while at least being credited as an attempt, are still not claims of diversifying curriculum to be inclusive. 

I went to this symposium with a definite purpose of getting some ideas of how to diversify curriculum in our post-novitiates back in India.  I returned home convinced that we, back in India, (at least in our Salesian circles) are way ahead (in ages) by way of inclusion and diversity and sensitivity, with regard to our philosophical curriculum than here in the West.  

Monday, 1 April 2019

Pre-nuptial tradition

Know not what led me this thought but it suddenly occurred to me this afternoon that the Telugu 'ritual' of pellichoopulu wherein a young man intending to get married, visits the girls' house, with his parents and elders.  This procedure is indeed a very social and respectable one - when taken in the right sense.  If it is taken as a sort of window-shopping for a bride, wherein the girl is one 'shown' as an object of 'purchase', then it certainly loses all its merits but otherwise, the procedure is worth understanding. 

The first thing that occurred to me was that marriage is not just between two individuals.  It is also a union of two families.  Hence it makes sense for one to know the other, just as much as the boy and girl need to know each other.  This makes great sense, especially in our Indian context wherein couples who get married often do not leave their parents side and continue living under the same roof.  However the present form of the boys' family visiting the girls' is only a partial process.  The girls' family too needs to visit the boys' house and family - after all, in most cases it is the bride who moves in with the bridegroom into his house.  That alone is enough reason for the girls' family to come and see where and with whom is their daughter going to spend the rest of her life, her new family! 

Secondly, it is a great 'official' moment of socialization.  Even when we have a tradition of welcoming and receiving strangers as our guests, it is good to welcome a rather unknown family into our home, with the intention of extending one's family. 

Finally, even in modern times when boys and girls often 'select' their life partners (rather than the earlier times when parents decide their partners), the tradition only cements this union of families.  This tradition does not lose its value or can never be outdated in its intended purpose.  Only hope that the other half of the girls' family visiting the boys' house too gets an equal share in this procedure!  

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Parable of the Merciful father

The parable of the prodigal son, which we heard this morning for the Gospel reading, is actually wrongly titled.  It actually should be 'The parable of the Merciful father'.  Unfortunately most of us invariably focus our attention on the son who leaves the father's house and then regretfully returns.  That the son who stayed behind with the father all along, was no better than his younger brother is sometimes lost out on us. 

In all this 'blame-game' and feeling of resonance of our personal lives, we fail to focus on the father who is all merciful and loving.  Nothing, nothing at all, deters him from continuing to love his children.  The son who walks out on him is loved dearly.  So is the one who stays on!  Irrespective of their attitude or behaviour, the father continues to love them the same.  Most parents exhibit this loving mercy all along their parenting. I guess, it is something parents somehow acquire with children around. 

While those who walk away in rebellion and then realize their connectedness to their dear ones carry the guilt of being shameful, those who witness the mercy of the father, from close quarters, rather than rejoice, fail to accept the acceptance of the father.  Paul Tillich does have a point, when he speaks of faith involving 'the acceptance of the acceptance of God'.  We tend to focus solely on our own merit (or demerit) and leave no scope for ourselves.  And if someone is granted scope and space, we feel 'betrayed in spite of our loyalty'. Blessed is he who sees beyond oneself and savours the love of the Father.  

Spring forward, fall back

This morning we moved our clocks forward by an hour commencing the British summer time.  Was told that the best way to remember when the clocks go forward or backward is to remember the phrase, 'Spring forward, fall back!'  Quite amusing.

The idea of day-light saving was first adopted by Germany and then the UK followed suit.  The idea was to make most of the natural sunlight than use coal to light up the dark. 

Changed my alarm clock last night itself before I hit bed!  Did not want to wake up at an odd hour and miss both the Masses in the parish!  

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

First day class

Some lessons (inspiration) for the first day of class...
Good first day class

  1. Build curiosity 
  2. Help build a community
  3. Learning: begin with what they already know; learn what helps them best as individuals; begin the content (without actually making them feel the burden)
  4. Clarify expectations (theirs and yours): assessments, policies, deadlines, materials... Give space for their aspirations, prejudices, fears and anxieties... ("What's the one thing that helps you learn better and that I can help with?"


Engaged teaching

A good resource about classroom engagement and learning, especially from a teacher's perspective...
How to make your teaching more engaging...

  • Use emotions 
  • Students learn better when the DO things.
  • Mix up activities and teaching styles
  • Engagement is different from entertainment
  • Plan chunks of the duration, rather than the whole lot
  • Make learning relevant to their daily lives
  • Your persona matters
  • Help students fall in love with the subject... you need to love it first of all! 
  • Take risk, freshen up your material
  • Know your students, help them build a rapport with one another
  • Tell your own stories, use humour...

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Return to Don Bosco

The work of the reformation is not to go back to where our predecessors were, but to persevere on to where they were going. 
We had a couple of General Chapters and other significant reflections around the slogan, 'Return to Don Bosco'. I don't claim to have read them all or understood all of the little that I read! However, I wonder if the above quote found in the introduction to the book of Paul Tillich, The Courage to be (p. xxviii-xxix) would mean something for us too. As Salesians we look up not just to Don Bosco, but to all those Salesians who have lived after him.  As citizens, we may recall to mind all our freedom fighters, leaders, early sages and wise men who made a dent in the passage of time. 

Our predecessors were not backward looking adventurers. They were looking to the future; daring to risk, relying on their present. They wanted to be where we are (hopefully, if we got them right!). If they were mere conformists or simple blokes trying to live the ordinary, we wouldn't be here, least of all have this discussion. They were guided more by faith, or intuition (in non-religious terms), than by pure reason or context. They felt the urge, the itch to do more than what was otherwise universally considered 'enough'. Their aim was to do, to be, better. Looking back to them we draw inspiration from them, seek their courage, place ourselves in their ready-to-journey boots; not merely do what they did, repeat their formulas, study them in isolation from their times, imitate them, …

Fasting

There can be several motives for fasting, especially during Lent. One could fast just because it is Lent. Or one could use Lent as an excuse and practice the long-delayed diet, in order to reduce weight – whatever additional benefit is a bonus! Or one could fast because of a spiritual dimension: partaking or preparing oneself to take part in the passion and death of Jesus. But there is another dimension that is often neglected or not always considered. One fasts so that someone else who does not have or cannot afford something as basic as food, can have some! The Christian faith is not something so private that it is only between God and me. Our faith demands of us a commitment and responsibility towards our neighbours – none excluded! And if my practices of piety connect solely God and me – or my neighbour and me alone – then it is lopsided. A true Christian spirituality would be an all-inclusive spirituality.

While each of these modes of fasting in Lent has some merit, I believe for fasting to be truly meritorious it has to have all these elements.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Bats and baptism

What's the best way to get rid of the bats in the belfry?
Baptise and confirm them!  You'll never see them again in Church!

The situation here in the West is exactly this.  There is still quite a sizeable number approaching the sacrament of baptism and if the children are in a "faith" school, they also 'get' confirmed.  But that's it.  After that they are rarely seen anywhere near or in the Church.  Two years ago, I was helping at the communion and first confessions of large group of school children, nearly 60 of them.  All of them from the neighbouring Catholic primary school.  Of course, not all of them would be part of this parish.  Nonetheless, I haven't seen any of those children again! 

The fact that one does not inherit faith, but chooses one is very true of the present generation of young people.  One can view this very positively as a conscious choice rather than a blind following.  It actually spells a certain maturity that Catholic Church has attained.  But the issue of witness - or in this case, counter-witness - is at the heart of the whole process.  Young people do not find the 'Church', worthy of trust and respect - leave alone of faith and love.  In a sense, this is a logical outcome of the way 'Church' has been construed for centuries in the past - the clergy, and at the most the building!  In the East, things are not too different; even though the present situation is not as divided as the West is. 

For young people to see the Church in a more holistic and realistic light, will take time.  Unfortunately those still 'guarding' the Church are not ready to open the eyes - and heart - to this fresh inclusive and enlivening understanding.  Those willing are far too few and scattered to make a universal impact.  Those happy to stand and merely watch are plenty.  

Friday, 1 March 2019

Kindergarten Philosophy!

Philosophy is no child's play! Says who?

To drive home the argument of Soren Kierkegaard who speaks of the inadequacy of Hegel's ethical framework to explain religion, particularly faith, I used a kindergarten tool-kit. Basing on the Biblical event of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-19), Kierkegaard claims that the notion of ethics and the universal (as postulated by Kant or Hegel) is insufficient to grasp the faith of Abraham, the protagonist of the Biblical episode.

To show that an ethical framework, even though complete in itself and useful to understand human life and interactions, could still be inadequate in making sense of some other aspect of the varied human living, I brought a set of alphabet blocks to the seminar. I asked two of students to verify that the set is complete, another two to spell out the word 'Thursday', another couple to verify the spelling, the next pair to spell out 'February' using the same alphabet set. While the first group had no difficulty completing the task of spelling 'Thursday', the latter were left a bit perplexed for they didn't have a second 'r' to complete 'February'. All of this took no more than 4 - 5 minutes. Not only was the point clear, the exercise facilitated our discussion on how religion can or cannot be discussed from within an established philosophical outlook.

Not sure if philosophy can be taught to tiny-tots in the kindergarten, but that the latter's learning aids are still useful to a graduate class studying philosophy is certain! (Posted on inSTIL TandLspace)

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Faith

Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, in a way, redefines faith. In a normal sense, faith would be a spiritual assent to a fact or conviction.  However, Kierkegaard's notion is a very radical call to much more than a mere spiritual assent.  It is a radical surrender.
Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith (p. 46).
But this rides on the notion of the Infinite as distinct from me.  There is someone other than me, outside of me, to whom I surrender.  This demarcation is not an issue for Schleiermacher who would consider the world, and God as an organic being (organic monism). Though I've not really got my head around all the implications of going along with that notion of Schleiermacher, I find most of his writings (at least those in the initial chapters of On Religion) quite open and very much 'Catholic' - certainly not popular protestant thought. 

Another point regarding the 'infinite resignation' that Kierkegaard speaks of as pre-requisite for faith, is with regard to the identity of the one submitting.  The difficulty in making this resignation is that one has given up his or her will for ever.  What else is left of the identity of the individual to sustain his being as distinct from the one to whom he or she has submitted his or her will.  For me, faith is not a once-and-for-all act done sometime ago; it is an ongoing-commitment that I make, as me.  Even my perpetual profession as a religious brother, is an act of commitment that I made verbally in 2005, but something that I live consciously every moment of my life. 

Last of all, Kierkegaard's faith, sounds more like an achievement than a grace.  I strongly feel that grace does not work in vacuum, and that there is a great element of giftedness, but it certainly is not pure achievement on my part.  

Understanding UK and history

I've been in the UK for almost three years now and only this week did I come to know that the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England are not interchangeable.  Each is a distinctly separate term, geographically and much more politically as well.

While United Kingdom comprises of four countries, but is regarded as one country.  These four are England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  However, Great Britain comprises of only three countries: England, Wales and Scotland.  So the UK is actually the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Norther Ireland.  England is a separate country by itself - perhaps the only one who'd be rightly titled 'British'.  The other two parts of Great Britain would certainly not be too happy if you'd call them 'British'!  The video below is a good and detailed description of what's behind the name and combination...
While the geographical composition and demarcation is complicated enough, the political connections (or colonial vestiges) are far more messy.   I liked best what the commentator describes as the opinion of the English about their counterparts in Great Britain and vice-versa!  ... "rural-yokels who spend too much time with their sheep" and "...slave-driving colonial masters..."

The Akedah

Before delving into the whole 'philosophy' of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), I thought it would be a good exercise to ask myself what was the purpose of including that incident in the Bible. 

Among the many reasons that my mind could come up with, the one that was a bit weird but different was the following.  The test of Abraham's faith was not to prove God's righteousness or graciousness.  The demand to sacrifice his only son, was for Abraham a test for himself and others.  God actually has very little to do in this whole scenario.  This is the only sensible way of interpreting not just the whole episode but also responding to why the 'test' at all.  It was basically for others to know Abraham better.  That's it, and nothing more. 

The simple analogy that I can think of is the corresponding exams and tests we have in schools and colleges.  The one who does the evaluation is hardly known or remembered.  What counts is the score.  The recorded score is the one by which everyone comes to know of the academic 'qualifications' of the student; but they only serve as an introduction, not a conclusive explanation.  When one applies for a job, the certificates and marks are considered because they are a way of assessing the candidate.  However, once on the job, the marks barely matter; what one actually does is the criterion.  So one might have a very high mark, but if the person is unable to really work, he or she may soon find himself or herself, looking for a new job! 

The akedah is therefore for me a mere introduction of Abraham to someone who would not know him.  But once you know Abraham, from the various other aspects and experiences, the initial introduction hardly matters.  

Ismail or Isaac?

Began reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, some time ago.  But prior to that was quite surprised when a colleague informed me that while Christians believe what is written in the Bible about the event where Abraham is ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, Muslims believe it was actually Ismail who was about to be sacrificed.  

In all these years it never occurred to me that it could be Ismail and not Isaac.  Especially given all those years as a child when we witnessed all our Muslim neighbours celebrate Bakrid.  They'd send us too a portion of the meat.  All those years, I was aware of them celebrating the sacrificial event of Abraham, but what I never thought that it would be involving Ismail; not Isaac.  Though the willingness of Abraham lies at the centre of the celebration or commemoration, it does not make a huge difference whether it is Ismail or Isaac.  However, the event also stresses Abraham's acceptance of God's command of sacrificing his only son!  I'm told the Jewish have a slightly different take on this episode. 

Monday, 4 February 2019

Wolf as the shepherd

The other day Fr Pavol was mentioning of a particular diocese somewhere in central Europe which had its new bishop.  His surname was 'Wolf'.  The initial humour around  the diocese was the question: "Can Wolf be the shepherd?"

Amusing when it is only the play of words and names.  However, as I had a good laugh at this whole narration, it took me a while to also remember that perhaps not all places there is a real shepherd leading the flock.  The name may not be 'wolf' but much of everything else certainly is! In such circumstances the harm done not just to the people directly involved, but to whole community and that too for the lengthy duration - not only of the tenure of the bishopric or pastoral service but in the years to follow too.  How difficult it would be for the next person, however good and noble he may be, to recover lost confidence and trust - leave alone work for the advancement of the diocese or parish. 

Great is the harm done by people who appear and promise to do good, but with ulterior motives; much more than those who appear and openly threaten to harm.  In the case of the latter, one is at least aware that they are there to harm.  

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

At Cowley

Last weekend, on Saturday, we went to Cowley for our monthly recollection.  It was nice to meet Frs Peter and Graham, after long.  They had done much to welcome us and make us feel at home.

Among the many beautiful things I noticed in the small Chapel and the meeting hall, what really caught my attention was the two glass stained windows embedded on the wall, on either side of the tabernacle.  One is of St Francis de Sales and the other is of Don Bosco.  I learnt that they were originally in the Salesian house or Chapel which was somewhere uphill from the present location.  The design of stained glass with its colour combination is intricate and very beautiful.  Most appealing was the metal work holding the whole painting, not just as a frame but holding the bits of glass and at the same time forming part of the image.  I doubt if the artists who made them, certainly not computerised given their age, were literate or highly educated.  But they certainly knew to do a very intricate and beautiful job.
The left icon on the top of this image of Don Bosco, is a bit intriguing.  The one on the right is clearly a chalice.  The one on the left appears like a shell but to me it felt more likely that it was Our Lady - given the two great devotions of Don Bosco: The Eucharist and Mother Mary.

Business affairs

I received my new student railcard on two days ago.  My former railcard expires tomorrow. The online site stated that once I registered my railcard I can renew it within one month of its expiry.  That's what I did in the last week of its life.  I received a reply stating that the renewed railcard will be dispatched soon and taking into account any possible delays in the post, the expiry date of the new card was moved back to one week.  So the new card instead of expiring on January 24, 2020 will now expire on January 31, 2020.  I completed the application and payment of fees on January 18, 2019 and had the card in hand, via post, on January 21. 

This is truly a very ethical and sensitive way of doing business.  Not taking into account any other aspect of their service or commenting on their other liabilities, the very fact that the company would extend the deadline of the new card, owing to some postal delays is indeed praiseworthy.  Such efficiency and sensitivity is truly praiseworthy.  

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Accompaniment

As part of the (personal rare!) reflection on the General Chapter and its preparation, I felt that that youngsters here in the West have a greater need for accompaniment and support than those in the East.  Youngsters here tend to 'gain' their independence soon after their school - more or less at the age of 18.  By then they finish school and mostly move out of their parents house, either for higher education or work.  From then on their dependence on the parents drastically reduces.  The physical distance from home makes a lot of difference.  Even if the children were 'independent' for their personal matters since a couple of years (their sixth form or so), the real moving out of the house, marks a clear separation. 

Unlike this scenario, in the East, children stay with their parents right till they get married. And most even when married continue to live in the same house with the parents (at least the boys).  So in this sense they still enjoy that support of the parents and elders at home.  While in the West, young people learn taking on responsibility early on in life, the danger of them not having anyone to fall back on when in times of crisis, especially if they are far away from home or do not really enjoy a comfortable relationship with their parents, is greater.  It is at these crucial times when they need a shoulder to lean on or a listening ear, or a gentle pat or knock (depending), that most youngsters either make or break themselves.  Most rely on friends. But not always.  Social media is perhaps the closest 'friend' most have! 

In this scenario, accompaniment matters most.  It is not mere presence in those crucial or demanding times, but much prior to that!  Only when a young person feels comfortable with someone or looks upto someone as more than a friend, but not necessarily as a parent, that he or she is going to turn back to that person in times of need.  In this sense, accompaniment envelopes presence and demands a prolonged and sustained effort. 

Friday, 18 January 2019

Religion: a different perspective

Reading Schleiermacher's On Religion, for the lecture today, I came across the following passage in his first speech (Apology):
I wish to lead you to the innermost depths from which religion first addresses the mind. I wish to show you from what capacity of humanity religion proceeds, and how it belongs to what is for you the highest and dearest. I wish to lead you to the pinnacles of the temple that you might survey the whole sanctuary and discover its innermost secrets.
[Schleiermacher, F. (1996) On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, Crouter, R. (ed.), Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 10-11].

Presented it to the students for discussion to see what they thought was the pinnacle, the sanctuary and the rest, that Scleiermacher is referring to in this passage.

While sitting with one of the groups it struck me that the passage can be viewed from a totally different perspective.  The normal reading of this gives one the impression of religion being a very special fact of human life.  That it is grand, large and tall.  How religion helps one achieve the best and the highest of human possibilities.  That religion is at the highest point of human experience, from which you can look down and see how the other aspects fare.  In the light of what precedes this passage and the whole mood of the speech, it is quite easy to arrive at this interpretation.

However, what struck me was that while religion does offer a different perspective, it is not a hierarchical standpoint that religion facilitates. Even if it does, from that position there is nothing hierarchical.  From a birds eyeview there is no tall, or big or great.  The whole dimension of viewing reality changes.  Nothing is tall, great, mighty, lofty, high, low... the viewpoint is totally different! So the same passage can also mean that religion offers a totally different view of the world and ourselves, something not possible for other aspects of life to offer or atleast offer easily. 

Doubt and faith

Came across this quote today morning.
Doubt and faith both are status of mind.  Doubt creates the darkest moments in our finest hour; while faith brings finest moments in our darkest hour. 
Appeared sound in the beginning.  But then something struck as out of place or not complete.  Both, doubt and faith, are not just related to the mind.  They have more to do with the heart than the mind.  Moreover, they compliment one another.  They feed into one another and sustain the other.  Far from being in competition or out to annihilate the other, each of them actually sustains the other.  A genuine doubt will urge you to move towards its resolution and in the process you are bound to rely on some convictions or principles.  That's faith.  Granted that at the end of the process, those principles or convictions may not any more be there or be modified.  But then you arrive at something 'better', something more profound and deeper.  Similarly true faith is not something that lacks doubt or has no place for it.  If one does not doubt, one will never experience what faith truly is.  

Thursday, 17 January 2019

The Church

For many centuries, especially since the Crusades, Christians have tried to 'restore' the Church to its former glory and supreme universal position.  Most efforts, even at the highest order, be that of bringing back the Latin Mass or emphasis on the Canon Law or fidelity to the practices of piety, have been to see the Church as what it was in the medieval times: glorious, resplendent, beacon of light for all and in all matters, be that of faith, liturgy, social or individual dilemmas, community squabbles; a universal point of reference or standard for matters concerning morality and justice.  This intention was indeed noble and in a sense justifiable.  However, there is one difficulty: That is not what Jesus wanted the Church to be! 

Jesus wanted the Church to be more like the yeast: invisible, yet effective; useful but not pompous;  felt but not standing out; communitarian, but not judgemental;  true, but not proud.  In the early days, the Church was rightly what Jesus wanted it to be.  That's how it achieved all the glory and credibility.  The challenge today is not to 'regain' that glory and credibility, but to be authentic.  The former will eventually follow.  And even if it does not, no big harm, because that is not what the Church is.  

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Not this

One of the difficulties in today's era, not that it did not exist earlier, is that in protesting or condemning something of the present or ongoing, we declare, "Not this!"  That this is not what we want.  We detest that the present standards or incidents are far below the 'accepted' norms or expectations.  That these events or policies or plans are not what we want.  But most often what we fail to progress to is to explicate what it is that we actually want.  To merely state 'not this' in protest is nothing noble or progressive.  Such protests can also be carried out by those who want to basically disrupt life and create a diversion.  They are happy to join and sustain the melee because it serves their narrow interests elsewhere. 

Nobility in protest is where we have the courage to stand up for what is right and are able to express that what we stand for; not merely be satisfied with 'not this'.  

Saturday, 12 January 2019

All the nations shall be blessed in him

The antiphon
All the nations shall be blessed in him 
is one that recurs very frequently this Christmastide.  And I could not but observe the stress laid on different words by the members of the community.  I may be reading too much into the semantics of this simple prayer we have been reciting practically every morning for the past two weeks, but nonetheless can't get it out of my head everytime I hear this. 

Some stress 'all', surely indicating that all people of the world irrespective of their beliefs are blessed by Christ.  But some stress the same word with a different intent or meaning:  all people, in spite of their varied beliefs, will be graciously blessed by Him!  The latter is surely a very mean approach. 

Then there are some who stress the word 'nations', I suppose indicating all authority and groups, not just individuals.  Some emphasise the word 'blessed', indicating the gifts He showers.  Others stress 'in him', which I figure is in a way reviving the pre-Vatican understanding that only through Christ, can any good come about! 

Whatever be the original intent of the author, one simple sentence can be interpreted in a thousand ways.  But I suppose the Lord who knows our minds, and hears our prayers, is gracious to bless us all. 

Dog walking

Here in the West dog walking is a kind of job!  For all apparent reasons it is to exercise the dog.  Given the fact that the dog lives indoors with the family, and the house may not have a large outhouse where it can run and play about, the dog needs to be taken out for a walk, not just to stretch its legs but also to relieve itself.  As such it is a task to be carried out everyday.  Some places people are employed to do this task, because the family members are too busy to do it! 

That said, there is another angle to it too.  This whole phenomena is not just because the dog needs it.  The real need or reason for all this and is more and more the case, today that it is an exercise for the ones at home!  Not the dog.  The dog is only the excuse or the one blamed!  Dog walking is today being promoted as an exercise for the young people, especially students!!  A sort of stress-buster! 

Now that's called dog days! 

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Petty little Christmas

During prayer this evening it struck me that practically everything about Christmas is to do with normal, everyday little things.  There's nothing extraordinarily big or huge that is in play for Christmas.  The original Christmas itself is all about, the star, the manger, the shepherds, the wise men, petty politics of power and rule, strenuous journey, Bethlehem itself being a place of little renown.  Even the gifts the three kings/wise men brought were something of a teaser and not really hugely costly.  I'm sure the costliest of the three, gold would have been a bit of it.  Certainly not a crown or a huge brick!  That would have been used to buy some tools or wood in Joseph's carpentry shed.  Most important of all, and at the centre of it all is a little, helpless, infant.  Not a mighty king or ruler, not a celebrity.  Not any wealthy family.  A mere young couple far away from home and perfectly homeless in a strange town.  Just a little baby boy. 

The liturgy of the celebration today too is simple.  It does not have the intricacies of the Easter vigil.  At the most, joyful songs.  People are not hugely worried about big things.  All across the world it is a time when families gather together, especially for a family meal.  Holidays.  Gifts for one another.  Petty little things, with and for one another.

Wish we retain the same spirit: petty, little Christmas!  

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Unforgettables

Those of us in the teaching profession always remember a couple of our students, not matter the years passed or the number of students we have taught.  These few will never be forgotten.  As for me, they are not always the brightest or the most obedient ones.  They are the most mischievous ones!  I still distinctively remember some of them from my early years of practical training - way back in the early 2000s.  Of those I taught in the formation houses, most of them are not Salesians or priests anymore, and I know not where they are and what they're now up to, but everytime I remember them or something happens that reminds me of them, I smile!  The same with a couple of those I remember during my short stay at Punganur and Ramanthapur too.

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