Friday, 30 January 2009

Lefebvrist bishops

I am impressed by Bishop Fellay's apology to the Pope. I think that it is the first time that the SSPX has officially apologised for anything. It shows that there is a desire for healing there.

As for Bishop Williamson, he is an embarassment to everyone. A number of years ago he wrote a Christmas newsletter from their Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, blaming all the world's moral problems on The Sound of Music and signing himself "+Ebenezer" ...

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Israel: a wider perspective

Someone sent me a link to the Daily Telegraph blog of a leading Catholic journalist, re the troubles in Israel and Palestine. It was replete with all sorts of Zionist luvvies baying for Palestinian blood. One of them even expressed his thanks to Israel 'for killing all those Muslim terrorists, to save us the trouble' ...

I wonder whether these same people would have been asking for Northern Ireland (at least the Catholic-dominated areas) to be nuked during the troubles. That was never the official policy of the DT in those days, though it came close. It is a paper I like a lot, but not uncritically.

For years, Israel happily confiscated Palestinian land, built new settlements, filled with new arrivals from the USA, with their coffee bars and kosher McDonalds, only allowing the original locals in to clean the toilets, labelled with a little badge saying 'foreign worker'. When water was in short supply, the Palestinians had their water cut off, while Jewish settlers kept the sprinklers going on their lawns. Open sewers conveyed the new settlers' waste through the villages of displaced Palestinians.

In the Lebanon, refugees pushed out of their historics lands in the 1940s, still live in makeshift accommodation, never having received compensation from the State of Israel.

In Jerusalem, Jewish companies buy up ancient Christian homes in christian quarters, using nominee companies with misleading identites. As soon as the sale goes through all the ancient Christian signs are defaced and remaining Christian neighbours are put under pressure to leave. In this same city families who have lived there for 800 years have no right to citizenship, while the new arrivals, providing they claim to be Jewish, can quickly obtain full Israeli rights.

I am not defending Palestinian attacks on Israel. I am simply attempting with these few short observations to draw attention to the incredibly complicated situation that exists in this area, and to the tragedy of the disposessed. Disposessed people always feel bitter; the miracle of modern Palestine is that people do not feel more bitter, and that so many ordinary Palestinians just want peace; but peace with justice. Not peace in a concentration camp.

Some great Jewish figures have publicly borne witness to the humanity and goodness of ordinary people on both sides of the divide. Poignantly, the great musician Daniel Barrenboim quoted the founding declaration of the state of Israel (1948) when he was awarded a medal from the Israeli culture minister a few years ago. His acceptance speech consisted only of these words, from Israel's founding document:

"[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. "

Sixty years on, Israel is in breach of a long list of UN demands and shows no sign of fidelity to its original combination of welcome to homeless and persecuted Jews coupled with respect for the rights of the indigenous Christians, Moslems (and Jews) who had lived in the land for centuries.

All the while, the Israeli politicians (a bunch of crooks, by the standards of most western democracies) denounce the Palestinian politicans as a bunch of terrorists, which is - unfortunately - not far from the truth.

It is in this context that Palestinians, in their prison-like state, in the shadow of a hardened and secularised Israel, have made the mistake of continuing their guerilla attacks, with the horrible consequences that ensue for all. Even if I condemn them, I think I understand what they are feeling.

Twenty-five years ago, I remember talking with cousins in Dublin about the problem of Northern Ireland. They told me how they had been up in Belfast for a party and how they had seen British troops drive through their Catholic area shouting anti-Catholic taunts, for no other reason other than that they could get away with it. Since then, and despite much deep hurt on all sides, relative peace has come to the North, because men on all sides have realised that it is time for the taunts to stop.

I hope that our journalists and their friends will take note.

A good read, from about ten years ago, is William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain. He captures many of the sad nuances of the conflicts and sufferings of the disposessed across the whole unhappy region. I recommend it wholeheartedly:

Monday, 26 January 2009

Gong Xi Fat Choi!

We celebrated the Chinese New year today with special fried rice and spicy turkey at lunch and then battered prawns, aniseed flavour chicken and stir fry vegetables, with banana spring rolls (?), yoghurt and honey. All washed down with a nice white wine.

These culinary delights were lost on many of the boys who weren't able to finish it all.

Quite a contrast after last night's haggis, neeps and tatties.

The Ref was beautifully decorated with chinese lanterns, dragons and streamers and Fabrice, our chef, reminded me of Cato from the Pink Panther films with a little red silk betassled Chinese hat.

Boys and school

Some interesting recent releases on the benefits of single-sex education from the boys’ viewpoint, and the evidence that boys are short-changed by co-ed schooling:

Kathleen Parker's Save the Males: Why Men Matter; Why Women Should Care … “Saving the males – engaging their nobility and recognizing their unique strengths – will ultimately benefit women and children, too.”

Sociologist Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men dissects the Guy Code … “Today’s young men are coming of age in an era with no road maps, no blueprints, and no primers to tell them what a man is and how to become one”, he writes. … “As a society, we must be active, engaged, and interventionist, helping America’s guys find a path of emotional authenticity, moral integrity and physical efficacy”.

Richard Hawley’s Beyond the Icarus Factor: Releasing the Free Spirit of Boys occupies some of the same territory in this elegaic exploration of the “puer myth” – that creative, imaginative energy in boyhood - and of the ways in which our cultural and educational expectations lead to “successful” but hollow men. The story is told with great sympathy and sensitivity, and prompts readers to see their work in boys' schools in a different light.

Peg Tyre’s The Trouble with Boys explores the reasons for the growing gender gap in school achievement and engagement.

In Boys Should be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons, pediatrician Meg Meeker explores the trends – ranging from the absence of positive role models to a toxic media culture – that throw obstacles in the way of boys’ maturation to manhood. “My concern is not with what is politically correct, but what is true and what is best for boys”.

with thanks to

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Robert Burns for Catholics: Singing Auld Lang Syne with the Angels

Tomorrow night, the 25th January, has been a deeply anchored part of my personal calendar since I became a student of Edinburgh University nearly twenty years ago. That night is the night of heavily distilled Scottishness that commemorates the nation’s most famous and beloved bard, a night known throughout the world simply as Burns Night.

Robert Burns, known by Scots as Rabbie Burns, was born into a farming family at Alloway in Ayrshire in 1759. He died in Dumfries at the early age of 37. During his short life he took the Scottish literary world by storm, and secured a place for himself in history and in legend. Every year, lovers of Scotland throughout the world mark the 25th of January, the day of his birth (in 1759) with an evening of song, poetry, speeches, comradeship, food and what he affectionately called Scotch Drink:

Gie him strong Drink until he wink,
That's sinking in despair;
An' liquor guid to fie his bluid,
That's prest wi' grief an' care;
There let him bowse an' deep carouse,
Wi' bumpers flowing o'er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An' minds his griefs no more.
Solomon's Proverbs, xxxi. 6,7.[1]

Of course, there are other occasions where people praise each other, celebrate their friendship and let the emotions flow freely; some dry, and others not. I remember experiencing something like this many times at a certain kind of prayer meeting, and similar scenes can be witnessed in Glasgow pubs on most nights of the week. But there is something particularly striking about a setting which combines this with the solidity of ceremony and tradition. It is a noble thing, I think, to confer a sense of the sacred on such a celebration of comradeship and gratitude. It reminds us of the deep dignity of the simplest of our emotions. It does the religious man no harm to remember that these things are always and everywhere sacred, even for non-religious people.

After all, a man’s a man, for a’ that, as the Bard would have it. God created men to live in friendship and good cheer, and Rabbie Burns famously saw through the pessimism of Calvinism to the Catholic truth that all men, places and things have an intrinsic goodness about them that we should try to love.

Somehow January seems just the right time for this kind of consolation. It is such a long month, and in this part of the world much colder and darker than December. The solace in winter that Burns Night undeniably brings is probably the only reason why, in modern times, the Scots managed to resist the public celebration of Christmas for so long; until the nineteen seventies, in fact. They already had one winter feast of loving, forgiving and remembering the poor. Why spend good money on another? (You know how careful the Scots are with their money.)

Which puts me in mind of an occasion, about ten years ago, when I borrowed 7o pounds 50 pence from my friend, Mr Asch; you know that he is called Rabbie, like our Bard, tonight, and that with his family’s Hebrew origins, his brother Russell, nearly became a Rabbi. That would have made a Rabbie and a Rabbi, which would have been confusing for the postman.

Anyway, back to the 70 pounds and 50 pence I once borrowed from Mr Robbie Asch.
A week later I pressed three twenties and a tenner into his hand and thanked him warmly. “What about the 50p” said Mr Asch.
“Ach, Robbie,” said I, “only a Jew would ask for the 50p!”
“Aye,” said Mr Asch, “And only a Scot would begrudge giving it.”

Thirty years after Scotland started celebrating Christmas publicly, we have managed to spoil it (or at least our public observance of it) in Scotland and everywhere else. But the potential for genuine cheer that Burns Night possesses remains mysteriously intact, and so for any of you with the scantiest claim to Caledonian kinship, I recommend its observance without reserve.

Burns and his poetry evoke all the joys and sufferings of raw humanity, and with the help of the whisky that accompanies the other traditional fare for the evening – haggis (a surprisingly delicious sausage made of minced sheep offal, oats, onion and pepper), turnips and potatoes – the event, with all its speeches, laughter and song brings people closer together as they reflect on what makes us human and why, despite its hardships, life is always worth living. (Burns had, incidentally, no time for those who would disagree with this sentiment. In his On a Suicide, he harshly quipped: Earth'd up, here lies an imp o' hell, /Planted by Satan's dibble; /Poor silly wretch, he's damned himsel', /To save the Lord the trouble. )

Scottish culture is about heavy and unsubtle things: the pipes, haggis, potatoes, predestination. Even the nation's favourite drink, the Uisce beatha (water of life) can be very un-nuanced in its effects on man. The architecture too is heavy and solid.
Perhaps all this heaviness owes something also to Scotland’s historic poverty, geography, climate and the rugged closeness of its people to the harsh realities of existence.

It is in such circumstances that sometimes the purest and most enduring expressions of human emotions are forged. Because with those bass notes reverberating in our bones – the drone of the pipes, the swell of the ocean, the reality of constant wet weather, the closeness to death and illness - we are apt to express deep emotion with great facility.

Millions living today have (even many times) sung these words of Burns: “Now here’s a hand, my trusty friend; and gie’s a hand o’ thine … We’ll tak’ a cup of kindness yet for the sake of auld lang syne.” And that moment for all of us, I wager, has often been one of great emotion.
But Burns’ passion was not just reserved for brotherly love. His fascination with the ladies was a constant leitmotif of his short life. It puts me in mind of a scandalous thing an old priest of the Isles once said to me, as I enjoyed his Gaelic hospitality: “you’ll find us all a bit Jansenist, but at least we enjoy our falls from grace.”

A similarly bracing (if somewhat theologically problematic) message is found in Burns’ popular song, Green Grow the Rashes O’.

Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

There's nought but care on ev'ry han',
In ev'ry hour that passes, O:
What signifies the life o' man,
An' 'twere na for the lasses, O.
Green grow, &c. …

For you sae douce, ye sneer at this;
Ye're nought but senseless asses, O:
The wisest man the warl' e'er saw,
He dearly lov'd the lasses,
O. Green grow, &c.

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
An' then she made the lasses,
O. Green grow, &c.

Burns fathered twelve children by four women, including nine by his wife Jean Armour. Seven of his children were illegitimate, including the first four by Jean before they were married in 1788. So the man knew his subject.

The poet himself analyses “the various species of young men” whom he divides into two kinds: “the grave and the merry”. The former are either “goaded on by the love of money,” or wish only “to make a figure in the world." He much prefers "the jovial lads, who have too much fire and spirit to have any settled rule of action, but without much deliberation follow the strong impulses of nature”. “I do not see,” he continues, “that the turn of mind and pursuits of such a one as the following verses describe - who steals thro' the vale of life, amusing himself with every little flower that fortune throws in his way, is, in the least, more inimical to the sacred interests of piety and virtue. I do not see but he may gain heaven as well as he who, straining straight forward, and perhaps bespattering all about him, gains some of life's little eminences, where, after all, he can only see and be seen a little more conspicuously than he whom in the pride of his heart, he is apt to term the poor, indolent devil he has left behind him.”[2] But perhaps we will hear more of this anon, when we come to toast the lassies.

Burns is a proto-Romantic. His poetry is in clear continuity with the medieval machars of Scotland, professional poets who composed poetry to mark the highs and lows of everyday life for recitation to their noble patrons. He shared with later Romantics such as Scott a nostalgic affection for his country’s medieval heritage, an attitude which went some way to healing the historic distrust for all things Catholic. Burns, in common with most of his generation, certainly perceived Catholicism as ‘other’ and laying no particular claim on his universe, but he had Catholic friends and admirers.

In a day when most of Scotland’s chattering classes were content with the new appellation ‘North British’, Burns made a stand for the defence of Scottishness and what he saw as the Scottish virtues of honesty, simplicity and natural nobility:

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, and a' that.
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A Man's a Man for a' that.

For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, and a' that;
The honest man, though e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that. [3]

He bewailed the fact that Scotland was content to sell her culture and soul for English gold:

The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valor's station;
But English gold has been our bane,
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation! [4]

One of Burns’ most enthusiastic admirers was Dr John Geddes, Catholic bishop and Vicar Apostolic for the Lowlands. He was the elder brother of the biblical critic and priest Alexander Geddes, also known to Burns. John and Alexander Geddes knew something of the harsh, rural life that Burns had lived: the two brothers had been junior seminarians at Scalan, a tiny (illegal) house of formation near Glenlivet for lads destined for the priesthood. They wore the kilt, lived on salmon and porridge, and washed in an icy stream each morning, in a valley surrounded by moutains where, according to Alexander, the sun never shone.

Burns first met Dr John Geddes at the house of Lord Monboddo in Edinburgh during the winter of 1786-7. Geddes took an interest in the poet's work, and was responsible for persuading five seminaries, including that of the Scots College at Valladolid (of which he had once been Rector) to subscribe to the Edinburgh Edition of Burns’ work in 1787. Burns took Geddes's own copy, bound with blank sheets for taking notes, with him on his Highland tour, and delayed returning it for two years. Writing to Geddes from Ellisland on 3rd February 1789, the poet apologised for having kept the book so long: 'You will see in your book, which I beg your pardon for detaining so long, that I have been turning my lyre on the banks of the Nith. Some larger poetic plans that are floating in my imagination, or partly put in execution, I shall impart to you when I have the pleasure of meeting with you...'

Letters of Bishop Geddes about Burns were recently discovered in a collection held by the Scottish Catholic Archives[5]. They give us an interesting snapshot of Burns' activity in Edinburgh and Ayrshire, at a time when, although on the brink of literary success, he was still effectively on the run from the parents of his future wife, by whom he had already sired two illegitimate children. His star was clearly rising nonetheless.

In one letter, Bishop Geddes writes:
“Burns, with whom I am intimately acquainted, though he was only Hireman to his elder Brother until August 1786 and never before that time master of ten pounds: yet read a great deal having been for many years a subscriber to a circulating library at Kilmarnock; had a little chest for holding books at the fireside, and on the Sundays, if the weather was good, instead of going to the Kirk, went to a wood with some Poet[ry]. Amendments were offered to him by Dr Gregory and others; but he would not adopt one of them; because he said; he was to publish his own Poetry. The Excuses he made to me for the Irreligion and some Licentiousness in the book were, that he only attracted the wild notions of the Religionists in the west, and that he had done good [and] that when he published his Poems he was not acquainted with that, [but of that] I am not a competent judge.”

In many letters throughout 1787 Geddes introduced, with some considerable zeal, more and more of his acquaintances to the work of Burns:
“You will have heard of the Ayrshire Poet Mr Burns, who was a ploughman until a few months ago. His poems have been lately printed here, and the subscribers were near to three thousand: he has truly a great genius and might improve himself much, as he is only twenty eight years of Age: but, I think, he will not be easily advised: he is one of those, who think for themselves, which to some degrees is laudable. I have been twice in company with him, and we are great friends.”

Another manuscript in the collection highlights Burns’ discreet Jacobite sympathy that has become synonymous with most Scottish patriotism, and his nostalgia for the Stewart (Catholic) kings.

“Wrote by Burns on the window of an Inn at Stirling at the sight of Stirling castle:
Here once the Noble Stewarts reigned
and laws to Scotia well ordaind
But now unroofd their palace stands
Their sceptre swayd by other hands
In idiot race to honour lost
who knows them best despise them most”

Burns was a fine satirist. His victims included the political and religious hypocrites of his day. When Burns was made to do public penance for three weeks, after his being admonished by the Kirk for his dalliance with Jean Armour (whom he later married), he recast in immortal Scots the Pharisee’s prayer of our Lord’s parable, featuring a drunken and debauched elder who has a lively appreciation of God’s mercy for himself but not for others. The elder Holy Willie praises himself and God in the same breath:

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an' grace
A burning and a shining light
To a' this place.[6]

The irony is delicious; and the conceited attitude it commemorates is - we must admit - a familiar part of everyone’s experience of religion. Of course, we are always ready to see Holy Wille in anyone else but ourselves. But Burns was aware enough of his own wretchedness, and frequently begs Heaven for mercy.

He also, famously, asks for self-awareness:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see ourselves as other see us.”[7]

A journalist visiting us a couple of years ago was bemused to hear one of our boys talk about St Burns. The poor innocent had assumed that with all the fuss we made of the man he must surely be a saint.

For my part, I certainly pray to meet old Rabbie one day, with his ‘enthusiastic heart of love’ alongside his generous and courteous friend, Bishop John, if – that is – I am forgiven all my sins as I pray the Power above has forgiven them theirs.

The Bard made these verses for the family of a Minister whose hospitality he once enjoyed. Turning to the angels, we can make them our own: for all those we have loved and lost, and all those we have loved and kept, over the years.

The beauteous, seraph sister-band-
With earnest tears I pray-
Thou know'st the snares on ev'ry hand,
Guide Thou their steps alway.

When, soon or late, they reach that coast,
O'er Life's rough ocean driven,
May they rejoice, no wand'rer lost,
A family in Heaven![8]

[1] ie. “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” Proverbs xxvi 6,7.
[2] Burns’ 1st Commonplace Book (April 1783 - October 1785)
[3] For A’ That and A’ That
[4] Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation
[5] Facsimiles of some of Geddes’ letters can be consulted on line at
[6] Holy Willie’s Prayer
[7] In To a Louse, where the poet records the shame of a lady in church who is unaware that a large louse is crawling around on her new hat.
[8] From O Thou Dread Power

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Great Books Summer Course at Chavagnes Summer 2009

So far, the details are not all worked out. But we are planning a Summer Course (for adults) on the Great Books of western literature. Keep checking this site for more details.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Political freedom ...

Another aspect of the FOCA proposal in the USA is that individual doctors will lose the right to refuse to perform abortions or refer for them. That means that it will become impossible for a Catholic to practise medicine as a General Practitioner or as a Gynaecologist.

Meanwhile, in Luxembourg, the Grand Duke is refusing to sign legislation that would legalise 'active euthanasia' (doctor-assisted suicide). The parliament has suggested legislation that would remove his legislative power and reduce him to a mere figurehead who no longer promulgated laws. The Grand Duke has accepted this if that is what his people want.

However, a campaign is underway to persuade the sovereign not to reounce his prerogatives, especially as at the next general election the new parliament would probably not wish to pursue the legalisation of euthanasia.

Interestingly, two countries with a big influence on Luxembourg public opinion, France and the Netherlands, have gone in opposite directions on this question.

Needless to say, the French television news is silent on all of these important issues.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Save Lives: join the prayer crusade against FOCA

Barrack Obama, soon to be inaugurated President of the United States has promised to do all he can to bring the Freedom of Choice Act into law as soon as possible in the USA. The FOCA bill will be put before the new US Congress soon and - if it becomes law - will have a disastrous effect on American society.

The bill will remove all restrictions against abortion.
It may legally pave the way for obligatory abortion in the future (in cases of rape, handicap, etc).
It will oblige all hospitals - including religious ones - to carry our abortions

The US Catholic bishops have said they will close all Catholic hospitals in the USA (that makes 30% of all hospitals in the country) if the bill becomes law.

For Obama this is a real ideological issue. Before his election he promised that this was the first law he would sign, and claimed that it was necessary in order to 'end the culture war'. In other words, the final victory for the culture of death in the USA. With the US bishops and laity, all Catholics are invited to join in prayer to prevent this bill from passing into American law.

For more information on this bill, visit: and

Here at Chavagnes, we are praying daily for this bill to be defeated.