Thursday, 25 June 2009

Thoughts on the priesthood

The year of priests began on Friday, and after a lovely, unfussy mass and an excellent sermon by Fr Daniel, I've spent the last few days reflecting on my complex feelings about the Catholic priesthood.

That reflection was further complicated by the discovery yesterday that someone whose behaviour shows him to be utterly unfit for the priesthood is a seminarian.

A story to illustrate the point: 18 months ago, I was having dinner with a friend. Seminarian X knew this; he'd been told. During the course of the evening, he rang my friend NO LESS than 7 times over the course of the evening to ask if he could come over or if my friend could come out. I wondered who the hell this person and his group were, and unfortunately, I later had occasion to find out as, even after having been told "NO, I HAVE A GUEST THIS EVENING," ad nauseam, Seminarian X showed up, sat down and promptly started eating the candy bar my host had just unwrapped.

The utter selfishness, violation of personal boundaries, lack of respect for others, immaturity and the lack of genuine friendship was...staggering. More trivially, since my host and I spent the rest of the evening trying to get away, it totally ruined what had been a lovely evening.

There is no way this was hidden in the interview or in any recommendations he received - he's too unaware of self to KNOW to hide it. No way he could have hidden the split between what he professes and how he behaves. But the seminary accepted him anyway.

The most likely reaction from the people at my church? A "So what?" and a limp wrist wave.

I'll tell you 'so what' - that boy will be dealing with people at their most vulnerable, from birth to death. He will be their SHEPHERD. This is NOT a LIVE ACTION ROLE PLAYING GAME (LARP) so he can ponce about in lace, pretty vestments, with a thurible. Nor is it a way to put off growing up and becoming responsible - something both religious communities and the training for the priesthood do far too often these days.

These are people's lives, hearts and souls on the line. So, yeah, I think character, maturity and people skills are important. Deal.

That doesn't make me anti-clerical. It makes me demanding; it makes me tough; it means I have high expectations from those of you shepherding God's flock.Yes, I allow for imperfection. But ONLY where you are committed to growth - emotional and spiritual. Where you can admit that you are wrong. Where you are committed to learning. But where you're using imperfection as an excuse to be lazy and not change, I will give no quarter.

This is where I step up and say: part of this is because I'm sick of cleaning up after the bad ones. I've lost count of the hours where I've sat down to talk down someone in tears because some boy said something in the confessional that made me cover my mouth in horror - things I wouldn't even say to the uncle who sexually abused me. We won't discuss the things that have been said outside the confessional, in the public domain, things priests thought were funny or clever, but were only passive-aggressive and hurtful. Let's not even go into the ways problems - big problems, obvious unhappiness, clear unsuitability - are ignored until it is way, way too late. And sometimes, that costs lives.

One instance I remember most sharply is where a cleric came to me one day, hugged me and just put his head on my shoulder. I let him be there and then we talked. Absolutely the simplest thing in the world. Later, one of his colleagues said, "I'm so glad he came to you. The rest of us didn't really know what to say."


He was lucky he didn't get what was on the tip of my tongue to say: "Well, God forbid any of you should have displayed some pastoral ability. Wouldn't want that."

I sound pretty unambivalent, don't I?

But I'm not. Because frankly, I lay a LOT of this at the door of their training. Those who should never be accepted ARE; those who should be weeded out in seminary are not; those who have the skills to be good priests aren't properly trained. I'm not sure I actually believe that seminary is much more than a place for Borg assimilation and some intellectual work, with the barest nod to real pastoral work or moral training. Essentially, you've put a young man in a group of people who look like him, who agree with him, who will apply peer pressure to think the accepted groupthink and don't require much responsibility or knock the corners off. Put them in a place where they're taught that they're 'special' or 'more important' or, in the one Vianney quote I don't like, 'everything' - and you lose the man, don't you? He becomes a boy again. To become a man - let's use the gender neutral adult - you need to be able to see other points of view without being threatened, you need to think through your speech and actions, you need to take responsibility - and you need to realise that you are not, and will never be, more special than any other of God's children.

You cannot call yourself a man if you live in ways, places or with people that are invested in keeping you a boy. And unfortunately, in its odd mix of attempting to hammer down the nail that sticks up yet inculcating a sense of 'specialness', of 'entitlement', priestly training does exactly that - creates a boy to do man's job, setting far too many up for failure.

Good priests only seem to happen by accident or grace, not by design of the Church. And that's just plain wrong.

There's the other reason I'm ambivalent - I know some absolutely amazing priests. The ones who make me want to hug them as they struggle their way out loud through a difficult pastoral situation and I can hear the emotion in their voice. The ones who can call situations 'tough and tragic' and apply orthodox teaching compassionately - and by orthodox teaching, I don't mean pretty liturgy. I mean the priests who can say that suicide is not a mortal sin because even though it is grave matter, full knowledge and consent can't have been present. The ones who call me on saying 'forgive but not forget' because they KNOW I really mean 'I don't forgive' - and make me admit and deal with it. THAT is true orthodoxy. The ones who choke up (and that DOES get a hug for as long as needed) when they talk about the gratefulness of the parents of a stillborn child after the funeral or any of the countless situations where they share, even as they try to comfort, someone's pain or darkness. The ones who undo the damage of their colleagues as only they can.

THEY are my many clerical friends. THEY are the good priests, the good men who, as one of them beautifully put it, pour their lives out as a libation. The WORLD, not just the Church, is a better place for them. (Though I think they ought to be able to marry, but that's another discussion.)

Those of you I know and those of you I don't - THANK YOU. THANK YOU.

They are, quite simply, God's vessels. But there aren't enough of them. They don't get nearly enough support - from the laity or the institution. And God knows, they certainly don't get the initial or continuing training they need. They get worn down by the disproportionate number of parishioners who come to them and by those who aren't priests in the true sense of the word. That balance needs to shift dramatically in the other direction. They need and deserve all the support they can get.

The Church needs to recognise, nurture and support them. The dead weight needs to go.

So where does this all lead us? To how Irim would set up and run a Catholic seminary, of course.

What was that sound? Oh, that would be the sound of my clerical friends groaning in despair ;-).
Sorry, boys, you'll have to wait for the next installment - I've got an essay to finish...but watch this space.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Cardiff Singer of the World disappointment

I only caught the first 'semifinal' this week, but was pleased to note that my ability to gauge singers, despite my inability to sing, was sharp as ever - the commentary running in my head was almost word for word what the experts said after, and I chose the winner of the heat within a single phrase.

Marvelous. I was ready. For various reasons, I missed the other heats, but I caught the last three of tonight's final. The bass was lovely, but not out of this world.

Next up was the counter tenor. I sat up straight...a COUNTER TENOR? IN THE CARDIFF SINGER OF THE WORLD FINAL?????????????? OMG. *BRILLIANT*

Now, any of my friends who know my musical preferences will be sitting back in shock. I'm a baritone/bass, alto/mezzo girl. I tend to dislike the higher ranges because so many who claim to sing them CAN'T, and sound like strangled cats at the top of the range. I'm going to get a lot of grief for this, but I HATED Luciano Pavarotti's voice. HATED it. Love Placido, but realised why when I learned he had been a zarzuela baritone. He has the richness of the baritone and the proper range of a tenor, and musicianship FAR superior to anything Pavarotti displayed - and was always undeservingly seen as second best, I felt.

Sopranos start off with an 'UGH' from me and really have to prove themselves. I hate what I call the 'light Mozart' sops - all air, no substance. Anya Harteros, the 1999 winner of Cardiff singer, is that rare, rare soprano that I love - one whose voice is like liquid gold, with depth, texture and range. When I like sopranos, they tend to be Wagnerian.

So, what I like in voices - texture, depth, darkness - I most often find in the lower ranges, so I gravitate towards them.

It's either that or crystal clarity - found in the trebles that are the staple of the English choir, NOT in light Mozart sopranos - or in that rare tenor like Fr Dom, whose voice a friend once described as 'ethereal, fragile, like Venice - you turn around and you're not quite sure he'll be there'. The most magical moment of the liturgical year is in a candlelit Oratory, the moment he sings the first note of the Exsultet - and then it's really a place out of time. Interestingly, listening closely this year, I caught some of the texture that I'd missed before.

Back to Cardiff singer. That was all a long diversion to explain why it would be such a surprise for my musical friends to discover that I was thrilled to find a countertenor in the final.

Yuriy Mynenko proved me right. His repertoire was one never heard in a Cardiff Singer final before :

Ombra fedele anch'io (Idaspe) - Broschi
Crude furie degl'orridi abissi (Serse) - Handel
Oh patria! ... Di tanti palpiti (Tancredi) - Rossini

His voice was divine; his phrasing, incredible; his emotion, electric. The vocal runs were jaw-dropping. I didn't look away for his entire repertoire, and the audience clearly felt the same. "He HAS to win," I thought.

When I heard who the next performer was, my heart sank. A pretty, Russian soprano who had 'blown the jury away' at her semifinal - Ekaterina Shcherbachenko. Aw, crap.

Yeah, go on, guess how often it was mentioned that she was 'pretty', or 'looked elegant' and how that made her 'the whole package'.


Her repertoire:

Je voudrais bien savoir ... Ah! je ris (Faust) - Gounod
Signore, ascolta! (Turandot) - Puccini
No word from Tom (The Rake's Progress) - Stravinsky

Already, she was at a disadvantage with me - I don't like hearing French *spoken* (sorry, Christelle), let alone being sung - its nasality is like nails on a chalkboard for me. Give me Spanish any day. And Stravinsky 'The Rake's Progress'? *CRINGE* Puccini? Meh.

She sang it creditably - she's a lovely soprano, but no Anya Harteros, and I was perfectly capable of answering FB messages during her singing, even the Puccini didn't move me, though I could appreciate her technical ability. She felt OVERemotional to me.

THIS was where the experts and I diverged. They couldn't praise her enough, and how 'from the heart, it has to be Ekaterina".

Pass me a bucket.

So, of course, it was.

I can't tell you how disappointed I am in the jury. Of course, they know more about music than I will in several lifetimes, but I can't believe that the difference was more than a whisker.

The jury missed a chance to do something that would change the history of the competition forever: award the prize to the first countertenor ever.

A prize that would not only have legitimised the countertenor as a male voice, but would have gone a long way to striking a blow against the unease most audiences have with a male singing in a female range - and therefore, would have struck a blow for widening the range of what qualifies as acceptably masculine, which is frighteningly narrow.

Leaving aside the fact that 'gay' should not be a pejorative term and that being gay doesn't make you any less a man - it would be a good thing if what is acceptable in the heterosexual male repertoire was far wider than it is now. A man should be able to dance well, sing countertenor, hate sports, have heart to hearts with his male friends, participate in high liturgy and not have his sexuality questioned.

I've had far too many male friends ask why people assume they're gay - read 'not really male' - simply because they didn't like sports or because they were quiet. Enough.

As a friend once said to me, 'Why do we DO this to men? It's not fair.'

She's right.

The Cardiff jury had a chance to reach out beyond their usual preferences and strike a blow for something far bigger than the opera world.

They missed the boat.

And I, for one, am deeply disappointed.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

A familial exchange

On Monday, 8 June - a full 12 days after my birthday - an email popped up in my OCMS inbox.

"Dear Irim,

I had sent you a note using your Yahoo e:mail address. But did not get a reply. Hope all is well. Anyway Happy Birthday again.

Love ,


On first glance, nice, right? I'm less sure. Over the last 16 months, since he's been in touch, he has claimed to have emailed to my yahoo adress several times without getting a response. For some reason, his emails never get through.

I don't buy it. Everyone else emails me at my yahoo address and has no problem; how is it that he's the only one that does? And if he KNOWS there has been a problem with Yahoo in the past, then why KEEP EMAILING ME THERE? Or, at the very least, if it's time sensitive, as birthdays are, why not email BOTH addresses to make sure it gets there on the day?

And when you KNOW I will reply to you with 24-48 hours, WHY didn't you email my other address earlier?

Sounds like somebody is:

a. Fishing for information
b. Laying on the guilt
c. Maybe more than a bit angry that since he got in touch, I haven't exactly jumped back into the family with great joy - I wonder if he thought I was pining for them or something and would be eternally, cringeingly grateful that he had deigned, as the patriarch in my father's family, to bring me back into the fold.

Why would I return to the fold?

This wasn't the place I was going to write about it, but I will now. I haven't had a big celebration for my birthday - instead, I'm going to treat myself by catching up with everyone in ones and twos over time, so I can talk to them properly and actually BE with them, which I couldn't do last year. Did that make me feel - less loved on the day? Less cared about?

Blessed Mother, no way. My birthday morning started with my logging into facebook and picking up an early morning, heartfelt message from a friend in South Africa that choked me up for the rest of the day, not least because I could see his expression and hear his voice as I read it.

And it went on from there - as message after message popped up on my facebook wall, on my phone, in my various inboxes, I couldn't have felt more loved as I saw the faces and heard the voices of everyone from high school friends to new friends; friends from Australia to South Africa to Stateside to Oxford - MY family. I grinned as I imagined what they were doing: juggling a baby on a lap (several of you!); walking purposefully up St Giles, drawing deeply on a cigarette and texting; furtively facebooking at lunch; taking a day off in my honour - to feed gerbils ;-).

I got cards in the post, a bottle of Cava from the boss I was with on the day and when I finally made it to OCMS the following week, the entire contingent of staff and students surprised me in my carrel with a rousing round of 'Happy birthday' and a card.

No matter how near or far you were, I felt your affection, love and friendship. I spent my birthday feeling absolutely adored and supported, and ended it with one of the heart-to-hearts I'm planning as my gifts to myself over the summer. It couldn't have been more perfect - thank you.

Back to my uncle.

So I responded, trying to give a little more news than usual, but I'll acknowledge that the bit about not having a sig other might have been too much of a swipe at the unhappy marriages of my parents and so many others in my family:

"Dear Uncle,

And yet again, I didn't receive it, or I would have replied :). It's - not .com - does that help? If you don't receive a reply, always assume I didn't receive your email - I'll always reply when I do.

Many thanks - had a lovely one on the 27th with lots of messages from friends and am spreading out the celebrations so I actually have TIME to talk to my friends this year: I had a party with 35 people last year - fabulous, but didn't really get to chat to anyone.

All good here; the training to become a psychotherapist proceeds apace and should have done it years ago; still no man in the picture, but that leaves me free to do my own things and I'm not trapped in an unhappy relationship for the sake of being in one or b/c of what people will think. If the right man comes along, he comes along. If not, I have a great life. Not worried.

And you? What news at your end? Oh, and does [family friend] have an email address? xx"

Ja, I could have done a bit better. There's a tightness, defensiveness and anger beneath the forced lightness that didn't really need to be there. I can see the 'Don't tread on me' and 'don't come any closer' stamped all over it.

And yes, the bit about being single stands out as defensive, no question about that. But as a South Asian woman, your success IS judged, at least partly, on whether or not you're married, so in some ways, that was a pre-emptive strike. But too much of one, I think.

Next time.

And the response reflects that tightness, I think:

"Dear Irim,

Glad to know that you are well and good. All is well here.
N has come here to do his Fellowship in Cardiology at Walter Read [sic, should be Reed] Hospital. [Family friend] does not have an email address;however her telephone is xxx-xxx-xxxx. I gave her your email address and she is going to write you from her friend's computer.
She was asking for your telephone number which I did not have.
Your mother does talk about you a lot and miss you.
Well : stay happy and enjoy your life. Our prayers are always with you."

One of the reasons I like to write is that it helps me think things through, and sometimes my feelings and my point of view shift from beginning to end.

Do I think this response is manipulative? Terse, certainly. Tense, without question. The not having my number is a 'misremembrance', because I gave it to him last year and have the email to prove it.
The line about my mother IS manipulative, but doesn't hit home, because frankly, if she wanted to be in touch with me, she could be. Her excuses about not being in touch with me hold no more water than her excuse about having to be at work and being unable to drive to Dulles the day I left to come to England. If she really wanted to get around my dad, she could.

Miss *me*? Unlikely. She doesn't really know me and spent my childhood weaselling information about how I really felt to hand over to my father as a weapon and to use as one herself. She was never worried about me as a person, but worried about how I would reflect on her as an extension of herself, someone through whom she could live vicariously.

What she really misses is someone she can live through and the appearance of the perfect family.

She can talk about missing me as much as she likes. I'll believe her when she acts.

Hard? Yes. But if I were a mother, I'd be even harder on myself.

As for my uncle, what strikes me is my friend Ari's comment that his prose is 'stiffly formal'. So, yes, I think a, b and c may well hold, but there's something else here: an awkwardness, an uncertainty about how to act with...a stranger.

A stranger who used to be a bright, pliable child. The one child who WAS going to be a doctor or a lawyer for sure, but ended up not being so. The good child, the child who was going to be IN the family, no matter what, because she'd never have the guts to leave. The child who would keep the culture more than the wayward others. The child who would always NEED them. Who had all the spirit beaten out of her. The quiet, studious one.

Amazing how wrong we can be when we don't know someone's inner world, isn't it?

Always watch out for the quiet, still ones. More often than you think, you're looking at a backdraft waiting to happen.

"Well : stay happy and enjoy your life. Our prayers are always with you."

A dismissal? Maybe. I think he just didn't know what to say, and I think he doesn't understand; it's like a foreign language. I'm touched by his prayers and grateful for them.

And for once in my adult life, he can count on my obeying that command. Enjoying my life is exactly what I plan to do - and if he wants to open up and be a part of that, he will be welcome.

If not, my prayers go with him.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Geekiness, divisibility rules and fractals

Most of my old friends know, from Nicole, Larisa, Susan and Lauri to Doug, Tom and Lauren. My current friends suspect it, but they don't know the depth...

Hi, my name is Irim and I'm a geek.

I was gutted when the UK got new registration plates. Why? Because there are no longer 3-digit numbers. (They used to go M345 KLW; now it's VK07 MMJ - 07=the car was bought in the first part of 2007)

So, you ask, looking at me like I've gone mad (which is not untrue), why do those 3 digit numbers matter?

Because I run divisibility rules on them as I'm walking into work.

Ja. Now you KNOW I'm crazy.

Look, I love numbers. I grew up playing with numbers the way I now play with words - I had to be able to figure out the total and the tax on purchases we were making at the supermarket before we ended up at the cashier. I recited my multiplication tables in front of my father more times than I care to count - and I remember that 3s were particularly difficult, because for the longest time, I'd only recite those to my father in order. And yes, I can do long division and find square roots by hand.

Numbers were at first familiar, then they became friends. Unlike many people today, I never found them scary or indecipherable. As one should with friends, I try to understand their limits as well as their strengths.

I fell in love with algebra. Solving for an unknown, the elegance of the dance towards a solution, quadratic equations...bliss. Geometry grew on me, and now I love the concept of angles, right triangles and shapes almost as much as I love quadratic equations. Almost, but not quite.

So, back to registration plates. Why divisibility rules?

Because what do you do with your friends? You PLAY.

So here are the divisibility rules:

2 The last digit is even (0,2,4,6,8)
3 The sum of the digits is divisible by 3
4 The last 2 digits are divisible by 4
5 The last digit is 0 or 5
6 The number is divisible by both 2 and 3 114 (it is even, and 1+1+4=6 and 6÷3 = 2) Yes
7 If you double the last digit and subtract it from the rest of the number and the answer is:
* 0, or
* divisible by 7
Repeat as necessary until you GET to a number that you know is or isn't divisible by 7.
8 The last three digits are divisible by 8
9 The sum of the digits is divisible by 9
10 The number ends in 0
11 If you sum every second digit and then subtract all other digits and the answer is:
* 0, or
* divisible by 11

See? Simple and doable in 5 min or less. And just plain old cool. My favourite discoveries are numbers divisible by 7 and 11. Make of that what you will.

I also find factoring quadratic equations step by step fun. I can usually do it in my head quickly, by working out what factors of a*c will sum up to b (ax^2+bx+c), but I love just writing it out and watching it unfold. I think it has something to do with the fact that I'm an associative, lateral thinker, and being forced to do things sequentially is relaxing, making me slow down and unwind.

I was actually geeky enough to be cross that I hadn't started the Fibonacci sequence on Brendan's exam status.

But these small pleasures are offshoots of the large one - patterns. I LOVE patterns - finding them, dissecting them, putting them together, watching them in motion, what happens when they're disrupted.

If I love sport, it's because I love the patterns in it: a rugby team running down the pitch, the pleasure of a cricket field being set, the angles on a snooker table.

And yes, that is the biggest pleasure of the 11am mass when it goes well. A good friend couldn't help ribbing me about how I was just as bad as the altar servers I complain about, noting the *littlest* thing that went wrong up there. I couldn't get cross because he's absolutely right. I notice because when it works up there, it's a true liturgical dance (sorry, guys, couldn't resist :P!) - a pleasure to watch. However, when the choir goes on and breaks the flow, or when the collect isn't at the priest the moment he's ready to read, I notice. It's a disruption in the pattern.

And that's why I note MCs so closely. I once told Ben Earl he was an amazing MC, and he commented that he had failed because I had noticed him. Whilst I agree with his sentiment that an MC shouldn't be noticed, he certainly didn't fail. I deliberately watch MCs to see how they set patterns in motion, how they keep them there and how they deal with disruptions in the pattern. Ben's timing and direction were near perfect. Interestingly, the people that you often think would be the best MCs because of their attention to detail and perfectionism aren't, because they're too rigid and a problem can throw them off, creating bigger problems. The friend mentioned above is superb - his relaxed vigilance means he'll see problems arising and nip them in the bud and be able to deal with change on the fly.

But my favourite patterns to watch? Interpersonal dynamics. I LOVE people watching and making connections in everything from their stories to their relationships. And that means from the microcosm of individual story and relationship to the macrocosm of world history, created by the interlocking patterns of a world of individual relationships.

So, do I love patterns because I love discerning order in a world that often seems to have none? Maybe.

But the explanation that resonates most with me is the explanation offered by Sarayu, the Holy Spirit, in "The Shack", when explaining an apparently chaotic garden to Mack:

"From above, it's a fractal," Sarayu said.
"A what?"
"A fractal...something considered simple and orderly that is actually composed of repeated patterns no matter how magnified. A fractal is almost infinitely complex. I love fractals, so I put them everywhere."
"Looks like a mess to me."
"Mack! Thank you! What a wonderful compliment! That is exactly what this is - a mess. But it's still a fractal too."

Order and chaos; complexity and simplicity, hand in hand. Mmmm.

Oh, and the garden? Mack's soul.

*That* is the heart of my love for patterns - I love catching glimpses of the divine fractals scattered everywhere, from divisibility rules to people's souls.

For a fleeting instant, I feel the movement of the cosmic dance and understand the words of Senex in Madeleine L'Engle's "Swiftly Tilting Planet":

"Now I may move anywhere in the universe. I sing with the stars. I dance with the galaxies. I share in the joy--and in the grief."

And I am home.