The Donkey – G.K. Chesterton

A poem for Palm Sunday and Holy Week

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

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FIRST MONDAY OF ADVENT

When Jesus went into Capernaum a centurion came up and pleaded with him. ‘Sir,’ he said ‘my servant is lying at home paralysed, and in great pain.’ ‘I will come myself and cure him’ said Jesus. The centurion replied, ‘Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof; just give the word and my servant will be cured. For I am under authority myself, and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man: Go, and he goes; to another: Come here, and he comes; to my servant: Do this, and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you solemnly, nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this. And I tell you that many will come from east and west to take their places with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven.’                                (Matthew 8:5-11)

Anyone who has worked in an office environment will have, at some point, experienced IT problems. When this happens, there are generally two options (or three if you count the tried-and-tested “Did you turn it off and on again?” method): an engineer can come out to your office to resolve the issue, or they can remotely access your system from wherever they are based. In order to do this, you will need to give them permission to access your computer from theirs. You need to allow them to remotely ‘enter into’ your system. Doing so requires a certain level of vulnerability and trust in the person to whom you are allowing access.

It is this vulnerability and trust that we see in the figure of the Roman centurion. Here we have a figure of authority, someone who is used to being in charge, who commands large numbers of soldiers and servants. The first step the centurion took was to be vulnerable enough to ask Jesus for help. The second step he took was to trust; to have faith that Jesus could do what he asked, and that He did not have to be physically present with the centurion’s servant in order to heal him. Both these steps required a substantial amount of humility from the centurion. This true humility did not lead the centurion to say, “Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof, so I’ll just have to accept that my servant won’t be healed.” The centurion’s humility was such that he realised, despite his power over many, that Jesus’ power was far greater, far stronger, and that a word alone from Jesus could heal his servant.

In this Gospel passage, Jesus shows us the power of humility. Indeed, His time on earth was marked by humility, from His birth in a stable to His death on a cross. Humility allows us to rely not on our own power, our own strength, but on the strength of our God who wants nothing more than to enter into our lives. Let us use this Advent as a time to give God access to our hearts, to recognise our unworthiness before Him, and in spite of that unworthiness, to accept with joy His unfailing help.

First Sunday of Advent

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Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left. So stay away, because you do not know the day your master is coming, You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’                      (Matthew 24: 37-44)

Well, that escalated quickly. If you’re like me, Advent is the time when you can finally allow yourself to start thinking about Christmas. During this time, the Christian world prepares to recall and celebrate the wonder of Jesus’ birth. So why does the Church hit us with a Gospel about the end times at the very beginning of Advent?

Picture the scene: a family gathers around the tree on Christmas morning, the younger siblings eager to tear open the wrapping paper that surrounds their presents, a dad hoping for a new pair of slippers and a mum….wait, where’s mum? Dad gets up and goes back into the bedroom where mum is sleeping soundly. He gives her a nudge. “Are you not getting up? The kids are waiting.” Mum stretches, looks at the clock and wearily replies, “What? Waiting for what? It’s 6.30am on a Sunday. Why is everyone awake?” Suddenly it dawns on her as she looks at the date on the bedside clock. 25th December 2016. “Wait!? It’s Christmas? I’m not ready! I didn’t get round to buying presents, never mind a turkey. Why did no one warn me!?”

An unlikely story. Many of us will spend weeks, or even months preparing for Christmas Day, and it is easy because we know exactly when it will be. We work better with deadlines than without. We know the deadline for shopping online, the deadline for sending Christmas cards, the deadline for ordering the turkey. We know these things must be done by a certain date. If Christmas could be celebrated on any day of the year, a day of our choosing, would our preparations be as thorough? Or perhaps we would never actually get around to celebrating it at all.

And that is what makes our Gospel reading today even more difficult for us. Jesus tells us that He will come again at an hour we won’t expect. So how can we possibly prepare? There may be a sense of apathy, a self-assuredness that the hour He speaks of won’t come in our time. We don’t need to worry now. But if Jesus came tomorrow, how prepared would we be? Would we be ready to welcome Him? Or would we exclaim, “Why did no one warn me!?”?

In a sense, Advent can feel like a kind of limbo. On the one hand, we have the annual cycle of the Church’s year, and during this time we prepare each to recall Christ’s birth. On the other hand, we look forward, to a time not known to us, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead (an acknowledgement we make each Sunday when reciting the Creed). We are continually reminded that Christ will come again, that we will be judged, and yet we often fail to prepare ourselves for this reality. So what can we do when we are constantly looking back to Christ’s time on earth and looking forward to His coming again?

The answer is given to us in the Gospel. We ‘stand ready’. We make our present position a stance of readiness. Each day we prepare ourselves to live as a disciple of God. Advent is a real gift in this sense. For the next four weeks, we have the opportunity to really focus on our place in God’s creation. To focus on what God has given to us, how He communicates Himself to us, and how we respond to that communication. Perhaps we can spend extra time in prayer during Advent. Many churches have Eucharistic Adoration nowadays – why not resolve to spend time with the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as often as possible? Perhaps, like me, you might want to spend more time reflecting on God’s Word, because it is in His Word that God reveals His plan for us. If you have children, take the time to make an Advent wreath with them and spend a few minutes together in prayer each day. Find a way of making your heart a home for Christ this year, and you will go a fair way in preparing yourself for when He comes again.

 

 

Is Democracy Dead?

For those of you not entirely fed-up reading about politics…

I doubt that any of us could have predicted the events of the past week. A Prime-ministerial resignation, a re-enactment of Brutus’ betrayal of Caesar, and a Shadow Cabinet rebellion are only some of the fall-outs following the EU Referendum on 23rd June. Throughout the past week, I’ve read and heard a lot about democracy. In particular, those who voted to leave the EU have ensured we all know how democracy works. Even many of those who campaigned to stay have shrugged their shoulders and said of the general public’s advisory vote, “Well, what can we do? We live in a democracy and the people have spoken.” It got me thinking about democracy and the various guises and forms it has taken throughout the centuries. The more I looked into it, the more I wondered:

Is democracy dead?

The EU referendum was as close to direct democracy as we get in the UK. Direct democracy originated in Athens during the 5th Century B.C. and at this time there were two prerequisites necessary for its success: 1. the community must be small enough for citizens to attend debates and to vote. 2. citizens must be afforded enough leisure time to engage in politics. It is clear from these two conditions that there was an emphasis on the ability of participants to engage, not just in a vote but in the entire political process. We can say, therefore, that participants in a direct democracy must have the ability and the opportunity for politics to play a central role in their everyday lives. Neither of these conditions are met in our modern society.

Recent research has shown that up to 7% of Leave voters regret their decision and would change their vote if they had another opportunity. The reasons for this are varied. Some feel they were mislead by politicians and their promises of extra money for the NHS and a reduction in immigration, promises swiftly retracted following the referendum. Others simply thought their vote wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, it appears that sections of the general public were ill-informed (the blame for which lies both in the provision and reception of information) and apathetic towards the democratic process. If we don’t think our vote makes a difference, do we really live in a democratic society?

I live in Northern Ireland, where the majority of citizens voted to remain within the EU. What I found interesting is that we voted in a referendum brought about by a party which had a 0.4% share of votes in our 2016 elections. The referendum was not desired in Northern Ireland, nor was its eventual outcome. It is unsurprising therefore, as we now face leaving the EU, that many people feel their vote would not and did not matter.

But the referendum isn’t the only problem. The party political system in the UK simply does not work. It isn’t democratic, in the true sense of the word. The last time any single party obtained greater than 50% of the vote was in 1931. Time and time again, we end up with governing parties who have roughly one third of the vote. Parties don’t even have to have the largest, or even second largest share of the vote to form a government. Look at the Liberal Democrats in 2010. They formed part of a coalition government, having acquired just 23% of the vote. Labour on the other hand, had 29% share of the vote and did not form part of the government. In simple terms, it didn’t matter that the Labour Party enjoyed greater popularity amongst the general public. The democratic vote didn’t really matter.

It seems to me, then, that we live in a sort-of democratic oligarchy. Every few years, the masses get a chance to ‘have our say,’ on who we want to represent us. But after that, it seems as though this small group of representatives can act independently of our opinions and desires. One only has to look at the current disarray in the Labour Party. Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey, has been one of Jeremy Corbyn’s main detractors in recent days, and has repeatedly called for his resignation, despite Wallasey’s CLP voting against any attempt to remove Corbyn and relaying their opinions to Eagle. She has simply ignored them. This is the story in many constituencies; Corbyn continues to enjoy significant grassroots support. Yet the man who, in September 2015 was voted leader of the Labour Party in a landslide victory, is facing political ruin because of the actions of a few.

It is clear therefore, in a time when just 36% of young people actually voted on their future either within our outside of the EU, and with many feeling powerless and disengaged from politics, that our current political system must change. Now is the time for brave and sincere leadership, a leadership not afraid to let go of the decaying structures of the past in order to build a new, representative, and effective democracy for our future. The time to act is now. If left any longer, one thing is certain: democracy in the UK will die.

Being little is a pretty big deal

I’m currently in exam-mode, so I don’t have much time (or inclination, for that matter) to write about anything other than what happens if you find a snail in your ginger beer or how to establish a duty of care (funnily enough, the two are related). So I’ll leave you with the words of someone who can teach us all a thing or two about life, despite having lived such a short time:

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My Jeans Don’t Fit Anymore

Today, as I packed my bag for a weekend break, I noticed that I’ve been wearing the same two pairs of jeans for quite a while. Wear a pair and wash the other. Switch over. Repeat. I had told myself it was because they were the comfiest jeans, the nicest fit, the easiest worn, but today I knew I had to face up to the reality: they were the only two pairs that still fit.

Since I’ve started studying full-time, the amount of exercise I’ve been doing has plummeted drastically. Add to that the temptation to snack whilst ploughing through Law books, and the result is obvious. I’ve put on more than a few pounds. I knew it already and I’ve made something of an effort, on-and-off, to do something about it. I’m by no means overweight, but I’m certainly not as fit or as healthy as I once was.

I took my other pairs of long-unworn jeans from my wardrobe and started trying them on. “If I just hold my breath…” I said as I wriggled around, trying to fasten the top button and failing miserably. At this point, my usual reaction would be to get disappointed and angry at myself for letting things get this way. I would put myself down. Then I would resolve to get really fit and stop eating junk food, and I’d rebuke myself if I dared even look at a packet of crisps. But this harsh approach didn’t work. Within a week or two I had fallen by the wayside and was back salivating at the sight of the McDonald’s Drive-Thru menu.

I took a different approach today. I didn’t get angry at myself. I knew it wasn’t how I wanted to be, but I also knew that it was the reality. I said to myself, “This is how things are. But it isn’t how things have to be.” I was gentle on myself, whilst not shying away from the fact that I do have to make changes.

I’ve found myself thinking about how my weight gain sort of crept up on me. But it didn’t really. I kept turning a blind-eye to it. “Sure, it’s not that bad. I’ll just eat better tomorrow,” I said, munching my way through a box of Pringles and eyeing up the Crunchie bar next to me. Then I would go through the cycle of anger, resolve and failure again.

One of the most famous weight-loss programmes has coined the term ‘syns’ for high-calorie, less filling food, the sort which made up a large part of my own diet for the past few months. I thought about the play on the word ‘sin’. And I realised how similar the way we treat our bodies and our souls can be. How many times do we let sin creep up on us because we turn a blind-eye or make excuses for our behaviour? How many times do we say, “Just this once,” or “It’s not that bad. At least I’m not as bad as so-and-so”?

Like our body, the wellbeing of our soul depends on what we let enter it. If a diet of fatty, nutrient-deficient food leads to an unhealthy body, what does the equivalent do to our souls? The more we neglect what is good for our soul, and the nutrients our soul needs, the easier it is for sin to take a hold. The less time we spend in prayer, reading Scriptures, partaking of the Sacraments, carrying out good works (exercise for the soul!), the more time there is for unhealthy things like gossip or scandal. Each time something like this enters us, it may seem small, insignificant. But one day, the damage it has done will become apparent.

And that’s where Confession comes in. God invites us to Confession by saying to us, “This is how things are. But it isn’t how things have to be.” God loves me as I am, no matter what. Whether I weight 120lbs or 300lbs. Whether I am in a state of grace or steeped in sin. As St Paul so powerfully wrote: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39). Yes, God loves me as I am and nothing can take that from me. But just as I love my body too much to leave it as it is (in its current, unhealthy state), God loves me too much to leave me as I am when I let sin take root. God is waiting for each of us, urging us to repent, to turn away from the harm we have caused ourselves and others. He waits, not to scold us or put us down, but to lift us up. To help us repel what damages our soul and rejoice in what does it good.

St Teresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.” Love your body and your soul, for they are the gifts God has given you. May your soul be filled with compassion for yourself and for others, and through the nourishment of of your soul, may your body be given to God for the purpose of carrying out His will on earth.

Why Do I Need To know That?

The internet is a strange place. It’s a place with no end. For every piece of information that is consumed, there are many more being created. Some of it is great: I’m currently studying a Law degree, and a lot of the course resources are online. There is a wealth of knowledge out there and some people are using their talents well. But how do we distinguish between what is  good content and what is not? Usually, the line is quite obvious, but a lot of time time we have no way of telling whether someone’s story is true or not. Of course, we could take the time to do our own research, but with so many other pieces of information being thrown in front of our eyes every second, who has the time for research?!

There is a real issue regarding what people think is appropriate to share with others. Often, they cannot differentiate between something worthwhile sharing, and information that is of little value to the rest of us, or even still that is distasteful and harmful. On Tuesday they may share something insightful about the refugee crisis, and on Wednesday they’ll post 26 photographs of their breakfast. Readers are constantly having to filter the information we retain.

The problem has spilled over to more traditional forms of information sharing. For example, I have an acquaintance (who, for their own sake shall remain anonymous) who often buys The Daily Mail. A day or two ago, I noticed the second story on the front page was about a GP who was taken to court for spanking her ‘lover’. Here’s a link to the online version: 50 Shades of Grey and a spanking that left tycoon dialling 999 and his GP lover in court after she left him covered in dozens of bleeding welts Read past the headline and you will note that the lady in question is no longer a GP (mentioning that fact in the headline would have reduced the scandal level, so we’ll not mention it until later), and she was acquitted of any wrongdoing. So what have I learned? That a man and woman I had never heard of, and am likely never to hear of again, enjoyed what some would call an adventurous sex life. At the time of writing, the online article has been shared 669 times, and 127 comments have been left. Include those who haven’t shared or commented, and the readership of the Daily Mail in hardcopy form, and you have thousands of people walking around the UK in the knowledge that these two people shared a sexual fetish.

The same day, I had a catch-up with another friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few months. There was a lot that had happened in our lives during that time that the other wasn’t aware of. And all I could think about was the fact that I had such intimate knowledge of two absolute strangers, but no clue what my friend had been up to for the past 9 weeks. It made me realise that I need to become a better curator of information. The media world and the internet world will always provide us with more information than we can handle. It’s up to us to choose how much of it we let in. More effort should be spent with our flesh and blood friends. Okay, it does actually require the effort any active engagement should, rather than being a passive receiver of the constant stream of information on a screen. But would I rather know how my friend is or how some millionaire’s sex life has panned out? The internet has made the world a smaller place. We can learn so much about other cultures and about other individuals. We can meet our future husband or wife online. But unless we become effective curators, it can make our own lives very small. We end up knowing too much about people we have never met, and not enough about those closest to us.

“Take what works and leave the rest,” is a phrase I hear quite a bit these days. And maybe that’s how we should treat the internet. A lot of it works well: online shopping is great for people like me who live in a rural location. Social media is good for keeping in contact with loved ones who are geographically distant. We can learn a great many things through the internet. Make use of it. But leave the rest. Leave what is toxic, leave what is unnecessary. And at times, just leave it altogether. Get up, go outside and meet a friend. Laugh with someone instead of laughing in your own head at a screen. When we are old and grey, we won’t marvel at all the great times we spent in our rooms scrolling through pages on the internet, but rather the real-life occasions we shared with good friends. And on that note….it’s a beautiful day today, I’m going out now to enjoy it.