Thursday, 28 September 2006

Seeing the gospel everywhere...

This morning, as I was walking into work, I saw this lovely, big, black dog with a grey muzzle walking behind its owners, head down, tongue out, looking as if it was thinking, "Ok, I've done my business, can we go home now? If I weren't attached to that leash, I'd just lie down right here and wait for the sun to reach me. Oh no, am I turning into a ... *CAT*?"

Leaving aside the dog's possible identity crisis, you could just imagine that about 7 or 8 years ago, this same dog probably grabbed the leash off of the 7 foot high hook it hung from and ran to give it to its owner: "Come on, come on, let's go," then promptly dragged said owner around Oxford on a lightning tour of all the colleges. During this mental picture, an irreverent thought (do I have any other kinds?) popped into my head...there's a gospel passage here:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go
." (John 21:18, RSV)

See? The gospel applies to everything.

I'm not going to say it, I'm not going to say it...

I gotta say it.

Life's a bitch.

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Walsingham - introduction

Ok, ok, I haven't written in a week. Almost. Walsingham till Sunday night, lazy Monday night, last night NTL stood for "Internet? Not Too Likely." So here we are, three days later than I'd hoped.

Walsingham is a lovely village in north Norfolk, a Marian shrine that attracts pilgrimages from all over the UK, certainly, and probably Europe. The story goes that Lady Richeldis de Faverches had a vision of the Virgin Mary and was instructed to build a replica of the Holy House in Walsingham. The Holy House is beautiful, set in the Anglo-Catholic (read: more camp than an army of tents) shrine, panelled in wood with a statue of the Virgin Mary on a throne with Jesus on her lap. It's candlelit, silent, magical. You can *feel* the generations of prayer that have passed through there.

The Catholic shrine consists of a barn of a church probably built in the 70s, a cafe, a shop and an unprepossessing building that contains the Holy Ghost chapel, with a painting of the Holy Spirit descending on Mary and the apostles (ooh, I'm sensing a theological point that needs to be made here about women in the Church...), and the Slipper Chapel with a statue of Our Lady and about 30 seats...both of which also ooze generations of heartfelt prayers from their walls. It's a mile - the holy mile - from Little Walsingham, and countless bands of pilgrims have made the walk, both barefoot and shod.

Of course, much of a pilgrimage's work is done in the prayer at these shrines, walking the Holy Mile and at mass. But if my entry sounds a bit hollow, that's because it is - a pilgrimage is a journey with others, and in our encounters with others, we encounter God - not always in the way we expect or hope, but He is there nonetheless. Chaucer knew this well. As I said over a Bailey's in the pub on Saturday night, "We define prayer too narrowly. Prayer isn't just being at mass, or meditating or kneeling with our eyes closed. Every moment is prayer. This conversation is a prayer." And on those railway line walks and talks with John, I could feel God like a second skin; it was the same with the alternating intensity and laughter in the pub. From filthy jokes to moments of forgiveness and release to sudden flashes of insight, Our Lady's hand was all over the 60 hour pilgrimage. We were all truly blessed and thankful.

There's so much to talk about, so much I'm still turning over, it's going to come in instalments over the next little while - from the Tridentine mass on Saturday to rosehip used in rationing to being a sniper as an analogy for Christianity (I'm going to make you wait for that last one). But for now, I've started - but I'm not going to finish. And to be honest, I'm not sure Our Lady will either.

Thursday, 21 September 2006

Bits and bobs...

Well, I'm off to Walsingham for the weekend, leaving at 4.30 am (don't ask, really) so that we have the whole Friday there. I've just packed and can't be bothered with anything too serious, so here's some stuff to reflect on/bore you to tears/tide you over:

1. Sartorial disaster: When I got in
to work Tuesday, I nipped to the loo (don't worry, no details). As I went to unbuckle my belt, it broke in my hand. No problem, usually, except that these are stretch jeans...which means that sans belt, they can slip down over my hips - whilst zipped and buttoned. Oops. I tried to make it to lunch, but lasted an hour before dashing off to Debenhams. Went to the women's section - could I find a plain black belt? Is the Pope Jewish? Men's section - 2 seconds, and I was out of there. Why can't women's accessories be as simple and endurable? Discuss. There'll be a quiz next week.

2. At the beginning of August, Rach and I went to Headingley. As we were flopped in our beds the first night there, I went off about public displays of affection - holding hands and a peck is fine, tonsil hockey is NOT. I was trying to say "People don't need to snog and practically shag eachother in public," but I was beginning to drift into the twilight zone, so I said "People don't need to shog in public." We burst out laughing, delighted at the invention. I can see it in the OED now:

shog (v.): to kiss, embrace, caress, indulge in sexual foreplay. Usually indicating more than just kissing and less than sexual intercourse. Syn. neck, pet. Believed to be a blend of "snog" (kiss) and "shag" (to have sexual intercourse).

Gotta love it.

3. And to keep you amused for the entire weekend, go here:

Going Jesus

The "Angels we have heard on high" - angel kitsch from hell - including pictures of angels pushing children, allowing them to win their Darwin awards and...

a bit early...but we need to be prepared...

The "Cavalcade of bad nativities" - absolutely bloody brilliant. Start your Christmas cynicism early.

I'm off to bed for 5 hours or so of sleep...have a good weekend, and I'll see you at the other end of it. To all my friends who are members of the eldest Abrahamic religion, L'shana tovah, and Shabbat Shalom. May 5767 bring you much happiness and blessings.

Sunday, 17 September 2006

The pope apologises...(v. long!)

On Sunday, the pope apologised for remarks he made at the University of Regensburg last Tuesday. The Muslim world is angry, the Catholic world is defensive, and as an ex-Muslim Catholic convert, I find myself in the odd position of trying to provide a perspective that might help explain Muslim reactions to the papal address.

For those of you who missed it, the Islamic world is up in arms over the Pope quoting
Emperor Manuel Palaeologus' comment: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Let's take care of the links first. For the full text of the papal address, go here:


Follow the link marked "Documents" and click on "Papal Address at University of Regensburg"

For an excellent blog entry with historical background of the quote and some thoughtful reflection, see here:

Jacquetta's blog entry on Pope

Jacquetta's entry gives us the background on Emperor Manuel Palaeologus, though I would go a step further and suggest that his statement was as much a response to the encroaching threat of the Ottoman Empire as it was an informed opinion.
I'd like to bring that context a little more into the present, if I may, b/c I feel that the current climate is a better gauge of why the papal comments were like a match to dry tinder.

We live in a world where Muslims feel as if they're marginalised by the West. From the Crusades to Palestine in 1947 to the world's silence in places like Bosnia and Kurdistan, Muslims feels as if the West doesn't care, and in some cases, as if the West is actively trying to either displace or exterminate them. And when the West DOES pay attention, they feel as if it comes in all guns blazing - literally - without asking them, respect for their way of life and their choices or even a token attempt to understand their culture. What Muslims tend to feel is that the West DOES come in with a desire to replace their culture and keep the oil pipelines open.

Rightly or wrongly, that's how they feel, and Western policies have done little to assuage that fear and anger. Take that emotional state and add the fact that so many of them live at subsistence level, are uneducated and unable to access the resources that we take for granted, and live with instability in their day to day lives, it seems unlikely that they will know - or be able to find out - the context of Emperor Palaeologus' quote or the full text of Pope Benedict XVI's speech. Even if they could get a reasonable translation, I doubt that they would have the leisure and resources to sit around, smoke hookahs, and say, "Ah, yes, that's why the pope quoted Palaeologus. That makes sense. However, Ahmed..." Let's not make the mistake of thinking that they have our resources, our lives and our inclinations.

The danger in this is that they do have access to media and governments that filter information for them. Without unlimited and freely accessible/uncensored resources to look things up for themselves, and with grievances already in their hearts, it becomes easier to see why there was such anger in the streets. Islam is the centre of their lives, from the first haunting sound of the Azan at dawn to the burqa women wear to leave the house to the last rakat of the Ishaa prayer before bed. Muhammad is central to all they say and do - he is their beloved prophet. It's no surprise that they heard the words "evil and inhuman" and heard nothing more. No matter that it was a quote, no matter that the rest of the speech was anti-violence. If an Islamic or Jewish scholar used a quote calling Jesus "evil and inhuman" in a speech against religious violence, how would the Christian world have responded? Would it have stopped to listen to the rest? I doubt it. Would you really listen to the rest of a comment if someone you loved - a parent, a sibling, a friend - had been called "evil and inhuman", even if the person telling you was quoting someone else? If so, you're a better person than I am.

There's the dry tinder.

Jacquetta asks, "
Is controversial scholarship no longer allowed because of causing offence? Shall we just burn all Christian theological texts that are harsh towards Islam, or any other religion?" The answer is, of course, a resounding "No." However, Pope Benedict's speech does not fall under the remit of scholarship. It was given from a university podium, yes, but the speech itself was not scholarly. He quotes a single reference - a compilation on Islam by a Lebanese Christian priest - Adeel Theodor Al-Khoury.

This is not a broad-ranging compilation of Islamic thought, as one might expect. It is a compilation of Byzantine arguments against Islam - understandably the most polemic and fierce, considering the threat they were under from the Ottomans. There is no problem with using controversial works as long as it is clear that a scholar is well-grounded in a broad range of literature - including the mainstream - on a Jacquetta says, "Historically, politically, and theologically, it is important to understand different perspectives. Scholarship must not be emotional." Absolutely spot on - I couldn't agree more. The problem is, the pope didn't study different perspectives to reach a conclusion or educate his reflections, he chose a book that most closely agreed with his own view, a book that would allow him to nod in agreement and stay in his comfort zone regarding Islam. If we step back and imagine his speech being given in front of a scholarly audience at a conference, scholars in both Islam and Christianity would have kicked his intellectual backside to Antarctica - and as I work in a place where the motto is "Veritas", or "Truth", I can name a few friars who might have gotten it started - and rightly so.

Why? Because instead of reading sources and coming to an informed conclusion, he came to a conclusion and chose his source. Leaving aside the use of Palaeologus' quote, which was injudicious at best, his use of Ibn-Hazm's quote left me blinking in incomprehension. From the Pope:

"But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn [sic] went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry."

Hmmm. Ok, Ibn-Hazm was an Andalusian, and Pope Benedict has declared his focus to be on Europe, so perhaps that explains his choice. However, Ibn Hazm was leader of only one madhhab, or school of thought, that believed in the literal interpretation of the Quran and the hadith. That school has since died out, so why "But for Muslim teaching"?

It beggars belief that Pope Benedict is unaware of the teachings of another Muslim philosopher born in Cordoba, Ibn-Rushd, whose treatise, Faisl-al-Maqal, emphasised the importance of reason and analysis in faith. Ah, you say, but perhaps he was a less important philosopher than Ibn-Hazm. Not so. Ibn-Rushd's philosophical work - his treatises on Aristotle spanned 30 years - had great impact on Jewish philosophy and on great Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, and Dante had such respect for him that he placed him in Limbo, just outside Heaven. You might know him better as Averroes, the great medieval philosopher. His equally eminent predecessor, Ibn-Sina, or Avicenna, also studied Aristotle and placed great importance on reason, wrote cutting edge treatises on medicine, astronomy, philology, theology...

It seems puzzling that followers of a religion that believed in such an unpredictable God and completely eschewed logic in their faith would look for and find orderly patterns in their illogical Creator's world - Muslims made huge contributions in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, architecture - logical subjects, every one
. At one point, Arabic was *the* language of science. In dismissing the Muslim faith as illogical, Benedict seems to be stripping Muslims of the one thing that most philosophers will agree makes us human - reason. And so the underlying assumption, the subtext, seems to be that Muslims are something less than human.

But subtext matters. We are creatures who give 80% of our attention to non-verbal behaviour, to actions, not words. Over the last 18 months, Pope Benedict has scarcely mentioned Islam once, even when it was warranted (e.g., the beatification of Charles Foucauld). He has removed Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a leading Islamic scholar, from his position as head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious dialogue and sent him to Egypt as nuncio; the Council itself will be merged into the Pontifical Council for Culture. He has made it clear that his priority as Pope is to recover a Christian Europe - to the point where he has expressed disapproval at Turkey entering the EU because it is a Muslim, rather than Christian, state. Add to that the choices of quotes/references and subject matter (both Christianity and Judaism have violent pasts, and an example from those religions would have been very appropriate for the topic of violence in religion) made in this, his *first* speech about Islam during his pontificate, and the emerging pattern of subtext appears coherent and crystal clear. Islam is a threat to Christian Europe, and dialogue with Muslims is very low priority.

Throw in the words "evil and inhuman", and you've just thrown a lit match onto dry tinder.

I am not defending the Muslim reaction - burning churches, threatening Rome, killing people are inexcusable and horrific reactions. But we *know* reactions like that come from the Islamic world - witness the fatwa against Salman Rushdie to name one, let alone suicide bombers, etc. Joseph Ratzinger is leader of one of the world's largest religions; he is a world leader, not a theology professor. What he says is heard as the pronouncement of a spiritual leader and Catholics worldwide. He is not a stupid man - on the contrary, he is deliberate, intelligent, thorough and thoughtful. He cannot have been insensible to how those words could have been heard, how they would have been reported by the press, the reactions they could have elicited. If I *know*, or at least have a sense of how what I say might be taken, it is morally incumbent on me to say what must be said in a way that will be heard - or at least in a way that will do no harm. This isn't about not being able to say anything - we must speak our beliefs and convictions - but we *must* meet people where they are if we are capable of doing so. Joseph Ratzinger must have had some thought of the effect of his words, spoken as Pope Benedict was morally incumbent on him to do his research thoroughly and speak his truth compassionately. He failed. It's a shame, because his words on violence and religion deserved to be heard.

He apologised. But the subtext is still there. Watch this space.

Friday, 15 September 2006

Viva Madrid!

Hurrah for the Madrid fashion show! They're banning models with a BMI (body-mass index for men or for emotionally healthy women who don't care) of 18 or less from the catwalk. For reference, a BMI of 18.5 to 25 is considered healthy. For the serious health/science anoraks, the BMI calculation is as follows: (weight in kg) / (height in m x height in m) [weight in kg divided by your height in metres squared]. For those of you too lazy to convert to metric, do the exact same calculation with your weight in pounds and your height in inches...then multiply by 703.

Enough of the atrocious writing in the first paragraph. Well done, Madrid, for making a statement about how women *shouldn't* look. Now, there has been a LOT of commentary, particularly among many of the illiterates who write into the BBC "Have your say" [Attention, editors: feel FREE to put some coherent posts up. And YES, spelling and paragraph structure matter.] about "naturally thin people" being discriminated against. I happens all the time. On billboards, in shops, in fashion, the male whiplash...naturally thin people have it so hard. My heart breaks. Really.

My absolutely favourite response? It had to be from Cathy Gould of Elite Model Agency in NY:

I understand they want to set this tone of healthy beautiful women but what about discrimination against the model and what about the freedom of the designer?"

She elaborated by saying that she was concerned that "gazelle like models" would be discriminated against. Let's start with discrimination against the models. Now, when a 5'6" woman who is 105 lbs is told by her agency to *lose 10 lbs* - who's doing the discriminating? The fashion show? Or is it the fashion agency? You see, Cathy, if I may call you that, you live by the law of supply and demand. If fashion shows *refuse* to use unhealthily skinny models - and trust me, there are very few women in this world with a *NATURAL* BMI of less than 18 - then YOU can't hire them...b/c there will be no demand for them. You will have to hire naturally beautiful women of a healthy size. They're not discriminating against thin models - I've done a BMI for a woman of 5' 6.75", and she only needs to be 114 lbs to have a BMI of 18 - that's still very thin; she's just not a walking skeleton. So for all the whingeing "Have Your Say" types out there - skinny is still in.

Now, the designers. A very good male friend of mine and I have had several chats about this, and he's seriously hacked off about it. He likes women of any shape or size as long as they are natural and healthy, but he resents the fashion world's dictation of what constitutes "beauty". He made the point, and I agree, that the fashion world is made up of disproportionately gay men, and they're dressing what they find attractive - women with no breasts, no hips, no curves - in essence, they're dressing teenage boys. Not to put too fine a point on it, he mentioned that he didn't fancy teenage boys, he fancied *women*. Not allowing them overly skinny models will be doing them a favour - they'll actually have to rise to meet a challenge and dress their market - women of all shapes and sizes.

And as for "gazelle-like"...well, that's a bit unfair to other animals with disproportionately long mosquitos.

I know, I know. It sounds like I'm jealous. Believe it or not, that's not the case. I'm happy with my shape, though I'd like to tone my arms, abs and thighs a bit...and that's down to me, no one else. What I DO resent is being told what I should look like and not being able to find clothes that flatter me. I have a large chest (great gaydar), a waist, and hips all in proportion - an hourglass figure that I wouldn't trade for the world. I walk more than 2 miles into work a day, so I'm pretty physically fit as well.

I know when I've hit my natural upper weight limit - I don't feel physically comfortable anymore, so I cut out the fat, eat a bit less and find my way to a more comfortable weight. I once used SlimFast to cheat, and as planned, the weight came off fairly quickly. But then disaster struck...

One day, I looked down at the pavement...and stopped dead. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. And I couldn't put my finger on it.

And then I had it. I could see my entire foot past my cleavage. That was the dealbreaker, and SlimFast and I got a quickie divorce (no annulment necessary). As I said to my friend Ruth just the other week in the pub, "I LOVE my...erm, cleavage." Now I just want tops that acknowledge that and give me a waist, and bottoms that complete the curves. To quote Jessica Rabbit, "I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way."

Every woman, whether a BMI of 18 or 38, has the right to feel beautiful in what she wears.

Gracias, Madrid, por tener coraje para decidir este. Espero que Londres, Paris y Nueva York haran como ti. Felicitaciones y salud.

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Gotta get back in time...

Reason #591 to insert filter between brain and mouth:

This evening, after I'd made dinner, I needed a show as filler for the 8-9 slot before "CSI:Miami". Usually, I go for "NCIS" (and the very sexy Mark Harmon), but tonight I felt like a blast from the past: "Buck Rogers in the 25th century" (1979-1981). Wonderfully awful acting, tacky late 70s tight costumes, Atari "Super Pong" special effects. Brilliant.

Brief synopsis:
Captain Buck Rogers is piloting a space shuttle launched in 1987. Due to a freak accident, he is frozen in space for 504 years and is revived in the year 2491 on an Earth rebuilt following a nuclear war in the late 20th century [hence "New Chicago"], now run by the Earth Defense Directorate. His partners in destroying all evil are the dignified Dr Huer; the pretty and capable, but sexually repressed, Wilma (!!) Deering; his irritating sidekick robot Twiki (favourite catchphrase "Biddi biddi biddi"); and the disk Twiki carries that is the illuminated face of Dr Theopolis, top scientist. His archenemy is the evil, sexy, do-nothing Princess Ardala. (Hmmm. Wonder where those stereotypes of women came from.)

My housemates, Mark (Jack's replacement) and Suzanne, showed some vague interest and sat down with their respective dinners. After ten minutes of watching scantily clad women (with the exception of Wilma and women of a certain age, of course) walk across the screen, Mark piped up and said:

"This is Bravo, right? This must be the prelude to the porn that they show later on."

Fork halfway to mouth, I tore myself away from Wilma telling Buck how very special he was to her, and how he'd made her feel things she'd never felt before and wouldn't have if he hadn't come along (sweetheart, either take care of your own needs or get therapy) to look at Mark. Suzanne had done the same. Mark, flustered, said:

"I mean, that's what I think."

Suzanne cackled and said, "I didn't know Bravo showed porn."
Irim: "Neither did I."

We waited for further comment, but Mark took to his room amidst our giggles. However, it put a whole new spin on the rest of the show. For example:

Shandar (pretty blonde in very short dress) to Buck: You're very quiet, Captain.

Projected Buck response post-Mark: Well, it's very hard to hide - and ignore - certain things when you're wearing tight white polyester pants. [Note to UK readers: "trousers"]

Well, well, well. Looks like our new, quiet, sweet, cricket loving housemate is showing hidden depths. I think we're gonna get on just fine...

Second nomination for quote of the night: "Thank God he's Orthodox [Jewish] and I'm a virgin."

Sounds like a night of raw passion between the sheets, then.

Biddi biddi.

The two Andrews...

Well, the announcement of the ICC Trophy and Ashes teams will be made in 75 minutes' time...and the name of the captain will be revealed. The media is shouting Flintoff's name as loudly as possible, certain he has it in the bag.

Confession: I'm cheering for Andrew Strauss. Last year, after the Ashes, before Michael Vaughan was injured, I said to Rach that I thought Strauss should be vice-captain - I felt he had the natural ability and temperament for the captaincy. *Kisses own hand in self-congratulation* Go me.

After a rocky start, Andrew Strauss has grown into the job beautifully. He is a quick learner who sees the big picture, picks up patterns and responds accordingly. He is also willing to change if something isn't working, although if he sees potential, he'll back it to the hilt - witness his confidence in Saj Mahmood despite the latter's erratic performances. He takes calculated risks - a character trait that I suspect was well-honed by his economics degree from Durham. (I mean, he lists one of his hobbies as economic chaos theory - how qewl is THAT for a sportsman?) He may be a bit conservative at times, but going into a series where all we need is four DRAWS, that's no bad thing. His style of inspiration appears to be a good ear and a quiet word here and there, as well as leading by example as opening batsman - his form has improved greatly since he took the captaincy. Under his leadership, the team has shown character, coming back from a trouncing by Sri Lanka to win the Test series and tie the ODI series (from 2-0 down) against Pakistan.

Now, I love Andrew Flintoff, don't get me wrong. He is an amazing sportsman and a top-class all rounder who deserved last year's Sportsman of the Year award, with a huge personality to match. It's no wonder he's the media's darling. And he's a lovely, lovely bloke - in his case, flamboyance does not equate with narcissism. He will inspire by word and deed. But that doesn't make him the best captain - not only did his form dip (a huge problem when you inspire by example), but his tactics appear to be based on "Right, if you want something done, do it yourself." He seems very much a "here and now" rather than a "patterns and possibilities" person. In a five day Test, you need to be able to see what the long term consequences of your decision might be. There's also the issue that Freddie tends to want to be everyone's best mate, which you can't be if you're making tough decisions. Frankly, Freddie will inspire us and intimidate the Aussies just by being there, and Steve Harmison will have the Ant to his Dec. Let Freddie be Freddie and play his best cricket.

Oh, and whilst we're on the subject, could we please stop assuming that "charismatic" and "flamboyant" equals "natural leader"? Two words for you on that one: David Koresh. Charisma is the ability, loud or quiet, to draw people to you. Flamboyance is the ability to draw attention to yourself by being loud and colourful. That's all. Leadership is about bringing out the best in people, individually and as a team, problem-solving, planning, looking outward and forward. They're completely different qualities, and for those cricket fans who disagree, the leadership style of Michael Vaughan, widely acknowledged as one of the best captains in the world, more closely approximates that of Andrew Strauss.

For you non-cricket fans, two more words: Nelson Mandela.

And on a completely unrelated topic, can anyone tell me why sandwich makers feel the need to put an entire tub of cream cheese on a salmon and cream cheese baguette? Yuk.

Monday, 11 September 2006

In a New York minute...

"In a New York minute, everything can change..." --Don Henley

Five years ago, on the 11th of September, in a New York minute, everything did.
I can't even bear to use the phrase anymore. At 8.45 am EDT, it was simply a bright, crisp, autumn morning during the second week of school. At 8.46, to quote another Don Henley song, "Oh beautiful for spacious skies/but now those skies are threatening..."

I know there are going to be millions of these on the web, and I really have no right to write one - I was lucky, I didn't lose anyone, and I knew that within three days. And I knew how blessed I was. I knew people who waited for weeks, and even on this side of the pond, there were whispers that so-and-so hadn't heard from their child/sibling/friend. But even though I don't have a special angle or a personal loss, I'm thinking about it, so I'll talk about it.

At about 1.30 pm BST on 11 September 2001, I was in the library, supposedly working on my thesis. I had actually deliberately sat myself down at a computer with AOL messenger to talk to my friend Erica, so I could complain about my friend Anni's choice of bridesmaid dress - trumpet sleeves are so not my thing. I was whingeing away, and Erica was clucking sympathetically. Suddenly, there was silence on her end - and the next lines she typed in made me feel as if I'd stepped into either an alternate universe or a Salvador Dali painting:

"Oh my God."
"What? Erica, are you ok? Is it Kelsey [her daughter]?"
"My co-worker just came over and told me that a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center."
"WHAT? No. Oh my God. You're kidding."
"No. Wait a minute."
(Pause - I presume Erica was checking the news, then she came back and said:)
"Oh my God."
"What a HORRIBLE accident. But that doesn't make sense. Any pilot worth his salt would ditch in the Hudson, or the Atlantic. You wouldn't fly into a building..."

At that point, I turned on the television in the library resources room, which was right next to me. I still don't know if I saw the second plane live or not, I was so numb. I went back to AOL, and by now, Erica knew there were two. And we knew it wasn't an accident. She went offline and I went back and stared vacantly at the television. I remember that the BBC commentators were brilliant. My friend Vince said he thought they were too calm, but it was EXACTLY what I needed - a lifeline to some kind of normalcy, something to hold the world together. Especially when the next pictures were going to take my fear to new heights, just when I thought it wasn't possible...

Suddenly, the scene changed...and it was familiar. Too familiar. A scene I'd seen through a car window...and there was smoke beyond. The commentator was Peter Sissons, I think, but don't quote me on that. He was saying - and it was the first time I'd heard emotion that day - "We've changed pictures and I can't tell where we are..." And I nearly said to the television, "I can. I know those houses, and the Pentagon is over...there." I cannot tell you if he had mentioned the Pentagon beforehand, but even if he hadn't, I would have known...because I'm a Washington girl.

Ok, I was born in the Maryland suburbs, and driving around Washington drove my blood pressure through the ceiling. [Where do you think my younger brother *learned* all his four letter words?] London taught me what it was to fall in love with a city - truly, madly, deeply; but Washington was *my town* - my local news WAS the national news, and I cut my teeth on programmes of political cut-and-thrust [Go, John McLaughlin! One of my early crushes was - oh God, how embarrassing - Morton Kondracke, then editor of the New Republic]. Washington was bad traffic, cherry blossoms in spring, the Mall, the Smithsonian, Adams-Morgan, Georgetown, the river and...untouchable, even during the chilliest years of the Cold War. Not anymore.

I had to leave and go work reception at church, so I asked for a radio, kindly brought down by Alexander, who then said something like, "It's hard to believe the Towers aren't there anymore." It didn't register till I went home and turned on the telly and watched them fall. Even now, if I see an 80s video or an early episode of "Friends", there's a lump in my throat every time I catch a glimpse of them in the frame.

An immediate email went out to everyone, heart in mouth - and I was certain some of my ex-students would be working in New York. That night, my mother rang in tears of shock, but thank God, my cousins in NYC were ok. Over the next few days, emails came back from everyone - all present and accounted for, each with their own story of trying to get home, trying to find friends and family. I learned the true meaning of "Thank you, God" that week.

Five years on, I've stopped ducking when a low-flying plane passes (otherwise, with RAF Benson and RAF Brize Norton not too far away, I'd have turned into Quasimodo by now); I am still stunned that my countrymen thought that GW Bush was actually a possibility for President (TWICE, no less...); I make sure arguments with friends are sorted out as soon as possible, b/c you never know; I have a deep appreciation and love for the apparently ordinary days that make up the vast majority of our lives. And I know that as much as part of me would love to look the other way should Osama and others involved die a slow and painful death, I know that if we let ourselves do that, we'd lose our humanity and he will have won. He must have due process, to protect who we are and what we are to become.

And the world? We're at war, because we needed to channel our grief, rage and helplessness somewhere when we couldn't find the guilty parties. Underneath the apparent return to normal, there is chaos, closer to the surface than it has been for a long time, brought there by fear and awareness of how fragile the society we have built really is - despite our technology, economy and all kinds of advances - our society is really only as strong as our relationships with eachother - individually and collectively...that is the tapestry we cannot afford to unravel.

As they have been ever since that day five years ago, my thoughts and prayers today are with the victims of 9/11 and their friends, families and everyone whose lives they touched...and for our world. And I know I'm not alone.

Today, 11 September 2006, I stepped out of my house and closed the door behind me.
It was a bright, crisp, autumn morning during the second week of school.

May history record it as such.

Friday, 8 September 2006

Spiders and Daleks

As promised, a return to the spider theme, though more quickly than I had hoped. However, after seeing three large spiders in three days, I'm hoping that writing about them in my blog will satisfy their sudden need to be the centre of my attention, and they'll disappear back into their usual oblivion.

I love God's creatures as much as the next person. Honest injun. And for the most part, my friends will tell you that I am a sensible, level-headed girl (I'm a librarian, right?) with a decent sense of humour and a reasonable command of the English language.

NOT when it comes to spiders. Any member of Class Arachnida, Order Araneae (they would make spiders *feminine*, wouldn't they? Typical.) turns me from reasonable human being into Dalek - "EXTERMINAAAAAAAATE!
EXTERMINAAAAAAAATE!" Recently though, with the purchase of a spider catcher from Lakeland, I've become more of a Dalek version of Kirstie Allsopp..."RELOCAAAATE! RELOCAAAATE!" It doesn't matter whether it's smaller than my thumbnail or as large as my hand; it has to go. NOW.

My poor ESTJ (see Myers-Briggs) father tried. He really did. Every time he heard, "DAAAAD! SPIIIIIIDER," he'd come in with a bit of loo roll, look at the evil beast in question, and say, very calmly and rationally, "Irim, how big are you? How big is the spider?" His intuitive, less rational INFJ daughter would have none of it.

Why? I think spiders and snakes are two very primal human fears, which makes sense as a reasonable number of them are poisonous. What IS interesting is that most people I know fear one or the other, not both.
Snakes bother me not a whit: I have a healthy respect for the poisonous ones, but other than that, I quite like them. Had I been Eve, I'd have put Satan on my shoulder, stroked his head and said, "Apple? Here, why don't you try some and tell me what you think?"

I've often wondered if the fear has something to do with the way they move. Spiders scuttle; snakes slither. Spiders move quickly and in unpredictable directions and stop and start, all of which I find deeply unsettling. Snakes move sinuously, slowly, pause and lift their heads, and then slither off again. Their movement is hypnotic, almost sinister. They move so differently that if one type of movement bothers you, the other isn't likely to. That's not going to hold for everyone, but I think it's part of the issue for me.

Back to current spider sightings - and none of them tiny! I mentioned the one across from my office in an earlier entry - he's gone now; thanks to any friar who might have removed him. Yesterday morning, I wandered into the bathroom for my morning shower. Just as I had taken my glasses off, a sudden, blurry movement on the floor caught my eye. *EVEN WITHOUT MY GLASSES, I KNEW IT WAS A SCUTTLE.* I moved to the centre of the room as it scuttled around the edge, finally wedging itself between the wall and the bookshelf that serves as shampoo/soap/bathroom accessories storage unit. Needless to say, my usual long, languid shower was cut short, I stepped out of the tub with great care and fled to my room. After work, every time I walked into the bathroom, I looked for it, certain it wasn't over yet, that this was going to be an epic battle on the order of Harry Potter vs Aragog or Frodo vs Shelob...

...And my warrior instinct was correct. This morning, as I pulled the shower curtain aside, there it was on the back wall of the tub, eye stalks turned towards me in challenge. Well, I am bigger, so I wrested the shower hose out of its holder, turned it on full force and aimed. It tried to crawl up the bathtub wall, but no dice - my aim and the power shower were too much for it, and it folded its legs and went down the drain in defeat. Another shower cut short, as I waited for it to superhum...erm, superspiderly haul itself up the drainpipe to claim revenge. It didn't, and I made it to my room in safety yet again.

Three (two?) spiders in three days...hmmm. My Jungian soul tells me there's a message here, if I can find it. Dealing with my fear? Can't be asked, too busy with shadow work at the moment. Oooh, perhaps the "Perek Shira", the "Song of Nature" from the Jewish tradition that attaches a Torah verse to each of the 84 elements of nature, each singing its praise to the Creator, with a life lesson to be found in each. Spider, spider...hmmm...hold on...ok, the closest I can get is "prolific creepy crawlies" - and they say, "Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your house: your children like olive shoots around your table." (Psalm 128:3) As I'm a woman, that's a bit difficult to interpret. Rabbi Jack, if you're reading this, help would be most welcome! Todah rabah. For now, back to Dalek mode.

I may not be able to interpret what it all means, but I DO know where it started. Martha. After the ordination on Sunday, I had a glass of wine and the pleasure of playing with my friend's gorgeous 2 year old daughter. We found a stone, threw it down the outside drain, saw our reflections in said drain. Fantastic. Then Martha said something that made my blood run cold: "Spider." And not in the appropriate tone of fear, but with a tone of eagerness - she wanted to GO FIND ONE. I looked at her mother in silent accusation, certain that some failure in her parenting had brought about this desire to play with Arachne's children. She looked back at me and said, "She's just at the age where she hasn't learned to be scared of spiders yet." I remained silent and disbelieving, but steeled myself to go help Martha find a spider, if that was what she wanted. Fortunately, two year olds have the attention span of your average parishioner during a homily, so trouble was averted. But that was what kicked it all off, I'm sure of it.

Hopefully the falling leaves will bring about a fall in spider sightings...but meanwhile, Martha, darling, you keep on enjoying them. Someone ought to.

Thursday, 7 September 2006

A housemate's tribute...

Today, over my hurried lunch of Doritos and Maltesers and Pepsi (enough sugar and salt for everyone out there?), I'd like to pay tribute to my housemate Jack, who's moving out of a house full of women to move in with some mates of his. Guess he misses the male bonding (hmm, wonder what *that* consists of...)

Jack moved in at the New Year, replacing Roz (an exceedingly qewl Kiwi Goth. I STILL want a good chunk of her wardrobe, but it's in Sweden now. Damn.). A true male 'tart with a heart', he fit into the household beautifully...he's the good bad boy that a lot of women would fall all over themselves to take home - cheeky, funny, works hard(ish) and plays hard, is a bit of a lad, cooks (in fact, he was the only one who cooked properly on a regular basis, veggies and all), and is easy on the eye (nice rear view when going back to his room wrapped in a towel).
But he also listens and is protective, and doesn't have Byronic mood swings...if there's a problem, he'll tell you...and above all, he genuinely likes women. Major kudos to his mum and sisters. Sensitive new-age guys, eat your heart out.

As you can tell, I found having him around a real treat (eye candy aside, of course). Now don't get me wrong - I love working here - the guys (oops, friars) are lovely, funny and warm. Ditto with the MiB (Men in Black) at the Oratory up the road. But, well, there are just certain sides to your personality you keep under wraps when you're around clerics. I'm sure if you ask them, they'd disagree - I'm pretty darn cheeky and provocative, and I am who I am. But there's a seriously "get out of the gutter, you're standing on my snorkel" side to my personality that I tone down around them - I *love* double entendres, raunchy jokes, uncensored conversations about sex. And much as I love them, I can't exactly open a conversation with a Catholic cleric by saying, "So, I was down at Ann Summers today..." With Jack, I could do *EXACTLY* that. We'd sit on our respective sofas watching "House" or "CSI" having a completely uncensored conversation about anything and everything - from work to religion to astronomy/quantum physics (one of his outside interests) to sex. If one of us had had a bad day, we could curse a blue streak, get it out of our systems, and move on. And if he'd had a particularly bad day, I might even consider handing him my "Bravissimo" catalogue so he could flick through it (for those of you that don't know what that's about - look it up!).

And so, mate, thanks for all the laughter, listening and friendship, and all the best at your new place. Girls, form an orderly queue. Treat him well...and make sure he does the same to you.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

What did Cardinal Trujillo mean?

See the stories here about Cardinal Trujillo excommunicating doctors in Colombia who performed an abortion on an 11-year-old girl raped by her stepfather:,,1861532,00.html

Irim takes a deep breath. My first reaction was to publish a scathing entry - but I decided to save it as a draft and do a bit of research before I said anything. To be fair, it seems far more likely that His Eminence used the phrase "incurred excommunication", since the excommunication is latae sententiae, meaning "by the law itself" (N.B. - someone is excommunicated
*lata sententia*) - therefore, the penalty is automatic once the rule is broken (in this case, Canon 1398). What that means is that Trujillo did not pronounce excommunication, he simply told the doctors that they had *excommunicated themselves* by choosing to perform an abortion, thus violating the aforementioned canon. For non-Catholics, that may seem like splitting hairs; in the Catholic world, there's a big difference.

*Exhales* So, how do I feel about it? I'm what most people might refer to as "conservatively pro-choice" - the Colombian law
allows for abortion in cases of a severely deformed foetus, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when the mother's life is in danger. That's about where I am, though I have reservations about the severely deformed foetus - tests have been known to be wrong, one parent might consider mild Down's a 'severe deformity', some severe deformities can be overcome...I'm just not sure. What I do know is that if you are going to leave a child motherless or if you are going to drive a woman to suicidal despair by forcing her to bear a child conceived in violence, then abortion may well be the best option. For these reasons, I feel it must always be kept safe and I will always vote pro-choice.

Note, however, that even though I am conservatively pro-choice, I would never condemn a woman who had an abortion for other reasons. I may not agree with why she did it, but I would always support her. Sometimes, it seems as if the celibate male Catholic hierarchy (don't roll your eyes, lads, you are!) seems to think that women wake up one morning and think, "Ooh, I'm bored and pregnant. What shall I do? Oh, I know! Get an abortion!" Each decision is an emotional one that is agonised over. Women who go through this don't need the contempt, horror and lack of compassion that so often come from those wearing a collar who may know canon law to their fingertips, but have no idea of the law of essence, those who know the law, but have no *faith*.

In this case, Your Eminence, I side firmly with the doctors - they are not 'evildoers' (please reserve that word for the one person in this case who deserves it - the stepfather), but people who were trying to do what was right by one very young, very frightened, abused little girl. So show some cajones and admit that, even if you feel you need to remind them that they "incurred excommunication" - and even better, feel free to pronounce excommunication on the stepfather whose actions and lack of remorse were heinous enough to deserve it.

A lot of people will applaud you for standing up for the "difficult moral teachings of the Catholic Church". I'm less sure of that. You've thrown the word "excommunication" around a lot lately. Your scaremongering on condoms was below the belt (pun intended) and an irresponsible spread of scientifically incorrect information. You state the laws very loudly, but you aren't making any real, thoughtful moral judgments. You're just shouting the rulebook louder than everyone else and trying to convince us that's real authority.

Real authority would have been quietly stating, "I understand why the doctors thought what they did was best for the girl, but in the eyes of the Church it is wrong. Unfortunately, they have incurred excommunication under Canon 1398, though we would hope to see them reconciled to the Church at some future time." (And yes, I'd add the stepfather to that.) Calling them "a web of evildoers" smacks of fear, not authority. You sound afraid, as if even admitting that people who act outside the rules have good intentions might bring your faith crashing down around you. God doesn't live in a box or in a rulebook - look at the wonderfully complex, intricate, evolving universe He created, full of energy and creativity. Step out. Dare. Trust in Him.

I would ask you, Your Eminence, to bear in mind the words of the Gospel in your work as shepherd to God's people:

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love." --1 John 4:18


Spiders and cricket (yes, that's supposed to be singular!)

I'm going to do this in reverse order: went to see the England v Pakistan ODI yesterday with Rach (for her take on it, see It was a fantastic day for cricket at the Rose Bowl, Southampton (a ground that will hopefully achieve Test status soon) - starting with the first ball of the game (sorry, Tresco!) taking the first wicket. At 0 (runs) for 1 (wicket), we steeled ourselves for an England batting collapse, but were pleasantly surprised by Strauss and Bell settling in for a productive partnership. Our captain led by example with his 50, followed by good performances by Collingwood (61), Dalrymple (62) and Bell (42). KP, our big hitter, was a disappointment on his home ground, getting caught on 20. Had he stayed in another 15 overs, the result could have been very different. We ended up setting Pakistan a reasonable target - 271 - but our bowling attack (bar Dalrymple, Lewis and Broad to some extent) was tepid, at best. When Sajid Mahmood was bowling, it would have saved the umpire considerable effort if he had just kept his arms in the position for "wide ball". Oh, wait - he might have had to switch to "no ball" on occasion.

KP and Sajid cause me considerable concern, b/c although their problems look different on the surface, I think they are the same at the root, and it might be at the heart of the problem with the England team: discipline and focus. Both KP and Sajid are immense talents with a "future so bright, [they] gotta wear shades". [Although NOT in the field on a cloudy day, please - *coughTrescothickcough*.] Watching KP get his 96 at the Oval was a breathtaking experience - with his array of shots, ability to judge the ball, the way he moves - he should *easily* be in the top 5 batsmen in the world. But he isn't. Why? At some point in his innings, he loses focus for a few minutes, miscalculates, and throws away his wicket. Saj's problem is inconsistency - he can either be absolutely brilliant and take five wickets, or he gives away runs like there's no tomorrow.

I suspect I know what part of Pietersen's problem is - at some level, he's afraid that if he becomes more disciplined/focused, it'll mean he can't be himself - the cocky, flamboyant shotmaker who makes it all look so easy and is a joy to watch, making even the most sedate of England fans stand and applaud his work. Not true: discipline and focus are about channeling his talents, making him a big hitter who can stay at the crease and send the run rate into the stratosphere when required. He may still get out more often than the more conservative Bell or Strauss - after all, Babe Ruth, baseball's king of home runs, was also king of strike-outs - but he'll be there to make the big scores for his team and fulfil his potential. Discipline and focus will bring him freedom and control to become more himself, not less.

Saj is more of an unknown quantity...he's quieter than Pietersen (not hard) and his inconsistency makes me think that he has some problems with his form that need a bit of gentle guidance. Maybe he needs more time with his bowling coach, maybe a bit of help from a fellow bowler, maybe more visualisation, I don't know.

But in both cases, it seems that a bit of what Catholics call "fraternal correction" is in order - what struck me yesterday was that on TMS, one of the retired Pakistani batsmen mentioned that it had been pointed out to him that he had a bad habit of standing a certain way...and he worked very hard to correct that habit (discipline!). And to be honest, that's something that Pakistani culture is much easier with...telling your teammate/relative/friend/complete stranger that they're not doing something quite right...and I suspect we see the result of it in the very good Pakistani team. In Western culture, it's just not done, except under very special circumstances. Now, I'm not advocating going around telling everyone what (you think) they're doing wrong, but it makes sense for a teammate to say, "By the way, mate, did you know you do X when you bat/bowl? How about..." And here's where we really miss Andrew Flintoff. A few years ago, Flintoff was given a talking to about "pissing his talent up the wall", and pulled himself together to become the colossus of the English team. One can't help but feel that he could give Saj the boost he needs and allay KP's worries about losing his style. After all, he's been there.

Darn it, this is too long to put anything about spiders in here - suffice it to say, I came back from Southampton this morning and came into work. And what should greet me but the mother of all spiders on the wall across from my office - you know, the kind where you can tell it needs to shave all eight of its legs? It's so big, it probably got here on an Australian be continued...

Friday, 1 September 2006

Wear like a mantle, don't wield like a fist...

Ok, I know I said I didn't take authority too seriously...I'm in conversation with a friend on this very topic,
so I thought I'd post those thoughts here - I'm using he, since the discussion was specifically about Catholic

Actually, believe it or not, I DO pay attention to authority - what I consider 'right' authority. No,
that doesn't mean that the authority in question *agrees* with me. It means that the person in question
wears their authority like a mantle and doesn't wield it like an iron fist. It means that what they ARE and
what they DO are in harmony - e.g., if you give with gritted teeth and resentment, and without joy, you
poison the giving... no matter how beautiful the doing appears to be, the feeling, the *being*, underneath it
will always come out. It means that he has thought out his position carefully, weighing law and compassion,
and has attempted to come to a right judgment - and is willing to explain how he came to it without feeling
threatened. It's about respect and trust. If someone tells me to be charitable and yet every chance he
gets, I see him being unkind or walking over people to get what he wants, it's a bit hard to give way
to his authority when he chooses to use it.

There *are* priests whose authority I give way to readily. Their actions are those of men who are *trying* to
love God and their neigbours as they love themselves. They *care* - for them, it's about being a shepherd to
God's people, no matter how imperfect they may's not about being clever, or having power, or
being seen, or being safe/comfortable, or running away from the unknown/uncertain, their past, their demons,
their sexuality [let me clarify here - it's not PREDOMINANTLY about these - I'm well aware that
motives are many and complex]. And they are who they are - strengths, weaknesses, everything - as they try
to discern God's will. And on that rock, God shall build His Church.

And I have clerical friends whom I *adore*, yet whose authority I will question b/c I worry that they clutch at it as
they would a safety blanket, and wield it out of fear... too afraid to look at themselves and to have
others really look at them - the others including Christ. Always, always at the root of true authority
is a bending to God's will, self-awareness (knowing your strengths, weaknesses, temptations, inclinations,
etc.) and the awareness of the privilege and responsibility of such authority.

What I really need to do is have a day out with every priest I know and see how he treats waiters, shop
assistants and others who serve him - b/c the true measure of a man [and his authority] is not found in
how he treats his superiors or his equals [or people he feels may have something to offer], but how he
treats those who serve him. That would tell me everything.
Ok, now I really need to stop and get some books catalogued. Otherwise I'm going to need a 12 step programme: "Hi, my name is Irim and I'm a blogging addict..."

Weakness #1

God, I love self discovery quizzes. A typical INFJ, I guess!

You Are Midnight

You are more than a little eccentric, and you're apt to keep very unusual habits.
Whether you're a nightowl, living in a commune, or taking a vow of silence - you like to experiment with your lifestyle.
Expressing your individuality is important to you, and you often lie awake in bed thinking about the world and your place in it.
You enjoy staying home, but that doesn't mean you're a hermit. You also appreciate quality time with family and close friends.

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets.

It may seem a bit odd that a girl who works in the library of a Dominican friary uses the Hebrew for Genesis 1:1, but in a previous life Stateside, I used to teach at a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school...oh, and I'm Catholic, but was born Muslim. Talk about an ecumenical life.

I don't know where this blog is going, but I suspect it'll have a lot of spiritual/Jungian musings as well as some rants [ok, a LOT of rants...I tend to get irimtated on a regular basis] about cataloguers who think God is a geographical location, piety for show, and politics. Hopefully a lot of laughs, too...everything from toilet humour to existentialism cracks me up.

I'm sparing y'all pictures since I am so unphotogenic, it's scary. My friends Rachel and CJ, however, are gorgeous. Look at them instead. I'll link to their blogs when I update my profile properly. I'm not saying I'm ugly - I think I'm "pretty enough for all normal purposes" (Our Town, Thornton Wilder) - it's just that pics of me suck. Rocks.

Ok, enough for now...I'd better get back to deciphering Hebrew titles - I'm a bit rusty, but hopefully cataloguing our Jewish section will help!