Sunday 31 August 2014

Middle East again

Ed Husain speaks to La Repubblica:

Youth who are prey to extremism: recent migrants, or simply migrants who do not feel sufficiently integrated into their new (European) societies; new converts, who tend to be more fanatic; small delinquents; always youth who are not fully integrated, who do not have a strong social network, who already carry seeds of hatred. Usually they do not have a good knowledge of their religion.

Ed Husain says that strangely, when he was in the Middle East, he met Islamic scholars who opened his eyes to the difference between traditional Islam, practised by millions of people, and the ideological version.

Ideology and extremism cannot be fought with bombings and military interventions. We need a real war of ideas, involving Muslims themselves. We should not forget that the great majority of Muslims is not extremist. We need to launch an ideological challenge, one that is capable of conquering minds and hearts. Above all, we need to offer an alternative, "una versione migliore dell'Europa...."

Ed Husain: one time jihadist, and now part of Tony Blair's think tank, the Tony Blair Foundation, and of the American Council on Foreign Relations. Author of The Islamist.

(Jim Sciutto, "Intervista: Ed Husain," tr. Anna Bissanti. La Repubblica, Saturday, 30 August 2014, p. 21. See CNN 2014.) 

Saturday 30 August 2014

The controlling role of feelings

Rossi de Gasperis on the controlling role of feelings / affects: it is from the affects, the desires, the real inclinations that one really knows a person and his consciousness, much before and much more than from the external ways which he has concretised his life. It is our authentic desires that form our soul and that impact on our being even before they affect our doing. [337.]
And it is our affects that control our behaviour. If I really want not to have enemies, or at least not to be the enemy of anyone, I can love those who make themselves my enemies, but if within myself I continue to nourish ill-feelings, while repeating that I love them all the same by force of will, I will not go far in receiving the love that God pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5, 5). [338.]
So it is not enough to concentrate on the willing and the acting: I have to look at the affects, the desires. And here, only one way: to pray for change. To desire internally and sincerely what God wants of me. To pray for the change of affects. This is filial obedience. This is the obedience of Jesus. [338.]
So to the insistent prayer of the beginning - chiedere insistentemente per la grazia di una intima conoscenza di Te, per amarti di più e seguirti di più - is now added this prayer: to desire internally and sincerely what God wants of me. 
As Francis de Sales also says: not enough to stop the action; you have to stop the root of the action. Like the man who is sick and cannot eat a particular food: he is just waiting to get well so that he might eat that food. His desire for that food is intact; it is only the circumstance that inhibits him. And perhaps Francis distinguishes acts, the habits from which the acts spring, and the deep attachments that underlie even the habits. 

Thursday 28 August 2014

On the use of the human sciences in spiritual direction

A question I have been asking myself these days is: if we have had great spiritual directors in the past who had little or no knowledge of psychology and the human sciences (and Don Bosco is himself a prime example here), why do we need, today, the human sciences?

Perhaps because the situation has changed, as Pascual Chavez points out in his Bari lecture? A new context that is not monolithic as was that of Don Bosco and his early Salesians, but pluralistic, one in which there are many agencies of education and formation, over which we have little control, important among them being the media? A new anthropology?

At any rate: drawing from personal experience, the story I tell myself, with my 8 + 3 + 3 plus some years of spiritual direction, mostly to young salesians, is that I have done reasonably well; and that yet, especially with the passage of time, I have increasingly felt the need for affective-emotional-sexual and spiritual work. A good initial dose of personal growth and spiritual direction, along with ongoing supervision, is the ideal. This is increasingly confirmed in interactions with salesians with experience in formation and spiritual direction from all over the world - people like Miguel Angel Garcia, Fabio Attard, Jose Pastor Ramirez, Johny Nedungatt, Jose Kuttianimattathil. 

There is the factor of what Jarema calls The Hole in my Chest, the father wounds and the mother wounds. Many, if not all, Salesians will have to contend with this Hole in the Chest, if they are to become sane and healthy spiritual directors, directors who do not easily fall into traps of transference and counter-transference.

This is not to say that we will be Saved by Psychology. I take it for granted that there is a sound faith basis, coupled with a sound supporting theology, for all this work. I will not be one to downplay the importance of the theological (see Gillini Zattoni, and Lonergan on the importance of intellectual conversion). My own experience points out to the indispensable role of sound faith convictions in the living out of the consecrated life. A fully Catholic and Salesian religious life is quite impossible unless we have an extremely discerning attitude towards the now inevitable New Age inroads into much of what is on offer in the area of the human sciences. 


The further, allied reflection is that personal woundedness can be turned into a bridge for access to the woundedness of clients and confreres. The Wounded Healer is the suggestive title of one of Nouwen’s books.

Middle East notes

Ed Husain is a Muslim academic who speaks out. ISIS and salafism, he says, is sponsored by Saudi extremists. The king is a modernizer, but has not been able to control Salafism.
Saudi Arabia created the monster that is Salafi terrorism. It cannot now outsource the slaying of this beast to the UN. (Last week it donated 400 million  to the UN to fund a counterterrorism agency.) “Saudi-exported Extremism,” Intl Herald Tribune, Monday, 25 Aug 2014, p. 7.

Thomas L. Friedman (“Order vs disorder, part 3”, IHT, 25 Aug 2014, p. 7) makes implicit use of what Lonergan calls ‘common meaning’ as constitutive of community. Friedman proposes that the world today can be divided into three kinds of spaces:
1.     Sustainable order, based on consensual politics, shared values, etc. [see common meaning]
2.     Imposed order: top-down leadership, or propped up by oil money, without real shared meaning.
3.     Regions of disorder.
Obviously, Salafism and ISIS are rushing in to fill the vacuums in the regions of disorder.
But the connected problem is that even those areas with sustainable order are weak in their consensus: the EU; China maverick; the US unable to agree on fundamentals; [Russia eating bits of Ukraine after having swallowed up Crimea].

Ross Douthat (“ISIS in the 21st century,” IHT, Aug 25, 2014, p. 7) takes a more philosophical view of Salafism and the ISIS, saying that they do not have the backbones to really last, and that they will peter out eventually, as did Nazism, Fascism, and Communism.
However, he is helpful when he provides one explanation for so many youth, including European youth, joining the ISIS. He points out that the challengers of the West, including ISIS, exploit persistent features of human nature – “not only the lust for violence and the will to power, but also a yearning for a transcendent cause that liberal societies can have trouble satisfying.” [Recall an Avvenire article from the early 1990s: when everything is so liberal, the only way for youth to define themselves is by transgressing the few remaining boundaries – at that time, the phenomenon of neo-Nazism, skinheads, etc.]
He quotes The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, who argues, discussing Europeans who have joined ISIS: liberalism’s ‘all-too-human order’ which privileges the sober, industrious and slightly bring – is simply not for everyone.
Douthat comments: “The ideals of democracy and human rights are ascendant in our age, but their advance still depends on agency, strategy, and self-sacrifice”.

Roger Cohen (“The making of a disaster”, IHT, 27 Aug 2014, p. 7) supports Douthat. He quotes Ghaffar Hussain, the managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British research group that seeks to tackle religious extremism: ‘One minute you are trying to pay your bills, the next you’re running around Syria with a machine gun.’ Also, says Hussain, many British Muslims are confused about their identity. ISIS provides them with a simplistic narrative of good vs evil, give them camaraderie and certainty, makes them feel part of a grand struggle.

“ISIS grew through American weakness – the setting of objectives and red lines in Syria that proved vacuous. But the deepest American and Western defeat has been ideological. As Hussain said, ‘If you don’t have a concerted strategy to undermine their narrative, their values, their worldview, you are not going to succeed. Everyone in society has to take on the challenge.’

Sunday 24 August 2014

Get behind me, Satan!

Had no idea about the link between the first reading of today, 21st Sunday A, and the gospel, but Matteo Balla provided the key: it is the key that is taken from the steward Shebna and given to Eliakim, and the power to open and to close. In the gospel, Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to Peter, with the power to bind and to loose.

I reflected instead on what is going on in the heart of Jesus. Caesarea Philippi is in the Golan Heights, which is Syria, and therefore somewhat away from the territory of the Herod who was getting too interested in Jesus. Jesus has begun realizing that not all are with him, certainly not the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, and the Herodians. Even his own family - including his mother - do not understand what he is about, and come to take him away, thinking he is beside himself. And of course his disciples do not fully understand him, even though they are with him. Does he understand himself? He does; but he is faced with the temptation, the three that he faced in the desert, and now repeated through the mouth of Peter: What nonsense are you talking about, going up to Jerusalem to suffer and to die; this will never be. And Jesus is strong in his reaction, strong in the way that one is strong when one is facing the temptation oneself: Get behind me, Satan.

Soon after, we find him seeking a lonely place to spend the night in prayer, accompanied by three of his closest: traditionally understood to be Mount Tabor, the mount of transfiguration. And there he is consoled by the Father, and borne witness to once again. There his way forward is also confirmed: Moses and Elijah talk to him about the exodus he is about to undertake.

In the face of opposition, inner turbulence, and the prospect of death, Jesus turns to his Father, and prays, spends time in prayer.

In the face of the atrocious happenings in Syria and Iraq, what is a Christian to think, feel, do? Helplessness is a dominant feeling, and sometimes simply a shrug of the shoulders, or else a hope that it will all go away, and at any rate, it is something far away, something that does not affect me, us, here, now. Or sometimes there is anger, and great concern, but only for my tribal group, my co-religionists. And sometimes I am provoked only when terror and atrocity and death touches me somewhat more closely, or touches someone from my group, someone I can identify with.

Pope Francis says: pray. Does that seem a weak answer? And yet, I was thinking this morning, this is a choice. We do feel helpless, but we do have a choice: to love or not to love; to have faith or to not have faith; to hope or to give in to despair. Christians have many times in the past stood up for what they believe in ways that are completely unChristian, with hatred and violence. Jesus' whole point is faith, hope and charity. To live every moment and every happening with faith, hope and love: that is the point, that is the challenge. Then, whether I live or die, that is, especially in the eyes of God, quite secondary. Beautiful to live, but even more important how I live. Sad to die, but even more important how I face death.

With surrender comes courage. The courage that Jesus found on Tabor, the courage that allowed him to set his face towards Jerusalem. One has given up total control over one's life; one has realized that one's existence in the hands of Someone Else; one has made the determined choice to love, to hope, to believe; one is then able to celebrate. Then when someone writes a gospel that equates the cross with the glory, it is not so surprising after all.

Monday 18 August 2014

Rinaldi on formation

Overheard, from don Angelo Santorsola, vice provincial of IME: "What cannot be obtained by love is not worth obtaining at all" (don Philip Rinaldi).

"Quello che non si ottiene con l'amore non vale la pena ottenerlo con qualsiasi altro mezzo" si trova in uno dei due libri più belli che ho letto su don Rinaldi:

1. Aldo Fantozzi. UN UOMO DI FEDE. Don Filippo Rinaldi   (stampato nella nostra tipografia del PIO XI in Roma).

2. Adolfo L'Arco. Il Beato Filippo Rinaldi copia vivente di Don Bosco (stampato a Castellammare - CEMM)

Friday 15 August 2014

The Vatican on the tragedy in Iraq

On the terrible happenings in Iraq, the Pope has written to the Secretary General of the UN, the bishops conferences of Europe have requested the intervention of the Security Council, and the the council for interreligious dialogue requests all religious leaders, and especially Muslims, to distance themselves from the Caliphate.

The last is quite new: the facts are named, those responsible are named; and leaders are being asked to react publicly. All must condemn unanimously, without ambiguity, these crimes, and especially the use of religion to justify them. Clearly mentioned are the horrifying practice of beheading, crucifixion, exhibition of bodies in public places, and the barbaric imposition of female circumcision.

(From Luigi Accattoli, "L'apello di Bergoglio all'Onu: 'Fermare la tragedia umanitaria'." Corriere della Sera, 14 August 2014, p. 14)

For the pope's letter, see: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/pope-s-letter-to-un-secretary-general-on-dramatic-situation-in-northern-iraq

For the statement of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, see http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/declaration-of-the-pontifical-council-for-interreligious-dialogue-on-iraq

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

A most exciting book: Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. I have been dipping into it the last few days, but today I found it unstoppable. The main hero is Solomon Schechter, so far, thoroughly Jewish, aided and abetted by a variety of friends, both Jewish and non, and eventually founder of the Conservative Jewish Movement in the United States. And Sacred Trash itself is not only beautifully but even exquisitely written, beginning from the title itself. I cannot imagine a better job being done on such a potentially tiring and tiresome topic, except for enthusiasts, of course. The story of Schechter is the story of a man bitten, even literally, by a bug - or many bugs. The exciting story of his search for the original Hebrew MSS of Ben Sirach, till his time known only in its Greek and perhaps Syriac versions.

In a very small way all this vibes with our search for the missing print editions of Thomas Stephens' Khristapurana. But Ananya Chakravarti's digitization project seems to be turning out very well, though I cannot yet see any sign of the print editions, or even of hitherto unknown MSS. She has done - perhaps with the help of collaborators like Leonard Fernandes - an enormous job of contacting people and institutions, mainly in Goa. Let us hope!

And many thanks to Stephanie Saldana for Sacred Trash. And of course to Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land, thanks to which I first came to know about the Cairo Geniza, only to learn later in Jerusalem that the Geniza actually existed, and that it had a long and exciting story around it. 

Tuesday 5 August 2014

A Memory of Light - the end of the Wheel of Time Series

I've finally come to the end of the Wheel of Time series, with the final fourteenth volume, A Memory of Light. It all began way back during a trip to Kuwait, when I found volume 5, Fires of something, I think, and got engrossed in it: magical Aes Sedai take-offs on women religious congregations, complete with Mother Superiors with great power, candidates (Accepted) and Novices, and so on; female (magic?) power mostly, and then also hints of male power; bonding (mostly between men and women), forces of Light, and overwhelmingly, the forces of Darkness, with a number of Fallen Angels who are Very Powerful because blessed with the force of Darkness, even called Shaitan in some books.

So how is A Memory of Light? Like most of the other volumes, first of all, incredibly boring and excessively long drawn out. These volumes could have done with a heavy editor's hand. But stories are stories, and so one is pulled - what a word! - by the story, and Robert Jordan has, in the end, woven a powerful world of fantasy, one which I cannot help thinking is at root inspired by the Christ story, complete with Prophecies of an Awaited Saviour, though with plenty of elements borrowed from the East, such as reincarnation, and the Wheel of Time, and the many kinds of intelligent creatures populating the world.

I am particularly intrigued by the End, because such Endings are almost impossible to craft in any satisfactory manner. Intrigued because I think Jordan and Sanderson have done a creditable job. Rand, the Saviour, and a very human saviour, is faced with the possibility of annihilating Evil completely. But he is also given the vision of a world without Evil, which would be a world without Choice, and so, in the end, very Evil indeed. I think Jordan is trying to say that freedom, and our possibility of choosing between good and evil, is part of our very essence, without which we would not be human. Rand makes the right choice, when he realizes that we are made up of choice, of freedom. There is no world of human beings without freedom. Very very intriguing.

Also intriguing is the fact that the Dark One is sealed off, though the seals are weakening; and he is 'nowhere'; but he can still touch the world. And he seems to touch it mainly with the visions he places before intelligent creatures: tantalizing visions of Power, mostly, in this book; but Master of Deceit, Prince of Lies, as the bible has it so clearly. And whether he exists or not, this is it: deceit exists, lies exist, great lies, and we are continually called to make our choices. The choices between Real and Unreal, the choices between what to regard as Real, and what to regard as ultimately Unreal. Is that not a choice we face the whole time? Not exactly metaphysics, but Ethics, here. I am faced with the choice to opt for what is good, and true, and beautiful, and good for all, not only for myself; and what is pleasing, good for now, for me, or for a narrow circle of those I consider somehow close to me.... Every young person is faced with this choice, and we bump into this reality so often as we face our own helplessness in making contact, in communicating with the young, for whom Real is so different: the Real being pleasure, sex, perhaps money, or the latest gadgets, or just efforts to fill up the void, the emptiness within, the loneliness.... And then, are we so different from the young? Are we not also all of us, very often, sometimes, caught up in this pull between Real and Unreal, Good and Evil? Is this not the Confusion, the Darkness? So in the end this series, boring as it can be sometimes, deals once again with the very basics of our existence. So I like what 'Phil' writes in his blog:

Underneath this great battle, I tried to think about what the Wheel of Time was about. Women with deadly stares?  The prophecy of three backwater youngsters ascending to greatness? The perennial fight between blindingly white goodness and 'darkishly' black evil?  I could go on and on but the answer I found makes me happy with the way the book ended.  Wheel of Time is about heroism, sacrifice, truthfulness, friendship, love, doing the right things and right to the end, it remained true to this, with a nice touch of naivety and innocence. I don't think we will see many series like that in the future.  The Wheel coming to a stop is the sign of a new age in Fantasy. See A Memory of Light Review, 26 April 2013, in the blog A Fantasy Reader, http://afantasyreader.blogspot.it/2013/04/a-memory-of-light-review.html

Friday 1 August 2014

Egidio Viganò, Interioridad apostolica: Reflections on spiritual superficiality and the grace of unity

José Luis Munoz lent me a little booklet containing the retreat talks given by Egidio Viganò to the rectors of South America years ago, in 1988: Interioridad apostolica: Reflexiones acerca de la Gracia de Unidad como fuente de caridad pastoral (Fortin Mercedes: Ediciones Don Bosco Argentina, 1988).

Already the Introduction grips: The danger of spiritual superficiality. Viganò begins by noting the risk that we all run (this already in 1988) of a love of the ephemeral but also of efficiency, the fascination of modern technology. He speaks of the way our minds are occupied continuously with a thousand things, leaving little space for reflection, and especially for the vision of faith. It is easy for us to somehow consider as not quite real the presence of the Spirit in history, the concrete way in which the Spirit affects history and manifests himself. One thinks and lives as if there were no divine component in human history. [All this sounds all too familiar. All too easy for me, for my brothers, to live as if God did not exist.] Yet, in the light of the incarnation, the paschal mystery, and of pentecost, Viganò goes on, it is superficial and anti-historical to look at the human being from a solely and merely horizontal point of view.  [Was Rossi de Gasperis speaking about much the same thing in this morning's reading? Reflecting on the episode of the Gerasene demoniac, he makes a reflection about Jesus' indictment of pagan horizontalism, a horizontalism that lies in the end under the reign and power of Satan. I was struggling with my post-conciliar upbringing, an upbringing that tends to demythologize all too easily any mention of Satan in the gospels and in the New Testament.... This remains one of the 'points of obscurity' in my reading also of RdG, and so definitely, it now strikes me, a point of great hermeneutical interest, bringing into play not so much the text as the self that is interacting with the text, and possibly inviting this self to undergo an expansion and even perhaps a change radical enough to deserve the name conversion....]

A spirituality of the active life is not easy: it calls for initiation and an adequate ongoing formation. It contains hidden dangers and risks, the most dangerous of these being spiritual superficiality. Allowing ourselves to be carried away by a purely horizontal way of looking at things; immersing ourselves in action for its own sake; becoming agitated with many problems; concentrating exclusively on the organizational, cultural, economic, political aspects; being taken up with merely human affections; searching for rationalizations and distorting the sayings of the saints that find their true meaning only in a life of union with God - all this attacks the very essence and core of 'life in the Spirit.' 

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