Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Sunday in the snow

I cannot remember an Easter Sunday with so much snow. Even if it comes early, Easter Sunday is rarely accompanied by winter's late return. This year, snow is back in fashion. The temperature has been relatively mild - hovering around zero degrees Celsius - but the snowfall was intense. It snowed pretty much all day. The climate is indeed becoming stranger and stranger.

Below: the wind blew the snow in from the east, swirling around the houses before settling. The satellite dish is plastered with wet snow (dry powder doesn't settle like this).

Left: looking out of the west-facing kitchen window - the snow is piling on the trees and bushes, despite the wind. Colder and drier snow would have shaken off, but this wet stuff has greater adhesion.

The online thermometer measuring temperature at Okęcie airport, just 3,570 metres away, never showed less than zero, with a daytime high of +2C.

Below: warm glass (even triple-glazed) and wet snow meant it turned to water on touching the windows. This type of snow is heavy and unpleasant; a day to stay indoors rather than to go out in search of winter fun.

Below: out on the balcony in front of the house, sheltered from the wind and snow flurries. Note how the snow is sticking to east-facing surfaces.

The cats showed no interest whatsoever in going out. At winter's onset, they couldn't wait to get out in the snow. But today, what was going on in the Great Outdoors was of little more than academic interest. They looked out of the windows at the wintry scenes, but decided that there were far more amenable places to spend the day.

On top of the TV set, for Lila (also known as Little Chiski, aka Jinx the Sphinx, left). Or on a bed in a warm bedroom for Papusia (aka Big Fat Chisko, the Feline Zeppelin, below)

Edinburgh continues to fascinate

Pictures from the week before last; finally I have time to upload them to my blog. Edinburgh is a visually stunning city, with so many vistas to delight the eye. Click to enlarge...

Panorama of North Bridge; Balmoral Hotel (left), Scotsman Hotel (right )

Atholl Place meets Palmerston Place. Auld Reekie's grimy past still visible

Rutland Court; Horse and Rider by Eoghan Bridge. Flakes of snow are falling.

Detail of the Royal Scottish Academy building (William Henry Playfair, 1822-26)

Balmoral Hotel, Princes Street; equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington

The Theatre Royal Bar, Leith Walk

Leith Street (right) passes Calton Road (left), which passes under Waterloo Place

Calton Rd runs under Waterloo Place, which is the A1 starting its way to London

Searching and believing

When Joni Mitchell sang "we are stardust/billion year-old carbon" in her 1969 song Woodstock, she was not articulating a pretty metaphor, she was stating a scientific fact. There are particles of you and me that are billions of years old, and have been inside stars. Atomic particles, to be sure, but eternal in every sense of the word. Electrons spinning around their nucleus since shortly after the Big Bang.

I believe in God; the driving force, the guiding force behind the progress of our ever-expanding universe made up of hundreds of billions of galaxies each consisting of hundreds of billions of suns, a significant number of which also contain sentient life. Our God, yes, their God too. The universe is moving towards an ever-more perfect state; one day, in billions or trillions of years time, it will reach that state; everything will be with God, everything will be God. Understanding and memory of everything that has ever been. Imagine what it could be like to be able to understand everything. The difference between us and an amoeba multiplied by an infinite power.

The notion of biological evolution goes hand-in-hand with spiritual evolution; consciousness evolving onward. We here on our planet consider ourselves to be the most highly evolved species, with the highest level of consciousness. Over the coming aeons we will evolve biologically and spiritually.

Negativity and pessimism - this is what holds us back in life, what retards our progress. Doubt, anxiety and fear. Levels of negativity can be reduced within human society by increased trust - and by prayer (more on this in a moment). We may have many gripes and issues with modern life - but it has progressed (albeit with some tragic regressions along the way) quite considerably since 1 AD, if only in areas such as healthcare, universal suffrage, the widespread use of labour-saving devices and ready access to information.

Prayer - one fundamental reason why I believe in God - prayer works. The dialogue held in silence between a calm mind and a listening God; primarily focused on grateful appreciation of what it is to be conscious, and breathing, and enjoying good health. And asking for only the basic things - that that state continues, health for one's loved ones and oneself. You cannot pray for a lottery win - it won't happen. But pray to God that your levels of fear and anxiety recede - and they will. God will grant you courage.

Returning to those atoms within us, and those electrons whizzing around those nuclei for eternity - we know more and more about them, and yet very little. Can they hold memory? What keeps those electrons moving? Will? It's worth reading about the atom, and about the history of philosophy. The Truth lies between the worlds of science and religion; we must all strive to seek, to keep investigating, thinking, discussing... moving ever closer to God, though God be half an eternity away.


Lent has ended. I've kept to my vows, I've not touched meat, drank no alcohol or coffee these past 46 days, I've exercised regularly (50 sit-ups twice a day, 22 press-ups twice a day) - yet I've lost no weight nor girth (still 11st 10lb, 39 inches). But this Lent for the first time I placed a proper focus on the spiritual aspects, and feel much better for it. Time to make myself a coffee and a ham sandwich.

Sculpture at St Pancras

With Lent now at an end, time to catch up with what else has been exercising my mind over these past six and half weeks. On my way back from the UK a week ago, I passed through St Pancras station, en route to "London" Luton airport. Time to take a closer look at the controversial Meeting Place sculpture by Paul Day (below). Around the plinth, something I'd not noticed before, is a series of high-relief friezes that were added on some time after the initial unveiling.

They are full of human drama; perhaps they lack joy. Yet I find them fascinating, in particular the wildly distorted perspective and the vision of deep buttressed cuttings, soaring viaducts and lengthy platforms - Victorian brickwork, steam trains, underground tunnels. But the people - downcast, passive objects buffeted by the indignities of war, alcohol, disregard and commuting.

My 10-24mm Nikkor zoom (at 10mm) is ideal in getting in close and digging out the detail.

A historical scene: note the rushing steam trains on the viaducts

Steps, walls, passages, ordinary folk going about their business

The surging crowds, past and present, restlessly move through the friezes

Perspectives distort, viaducts open up vistas and shore up skylines 

An air of unease... who's that over your shoulder? An empty, historic platform

Strap-hanging readers on the Tube; life's small indignities

Workers rebuild the Tube after the 7/7 terrorist attacks

Gassed WW1 soldiers return from the trenches as fresh troops are waved off. A contemporary Eurostar train stands on the left-hand platform of William Henry's Barlow's cast-iron and glass train shed
A tender farewell? The mobile phone looks more interesting...

Another view showing the three-dimensional nature of the frieze

In the glasses, reflections of a crowded Tube platform - two takes on one scene

A close-up through the left-hand lens...

...A close-up through the right-hand lens

More crowds, more viaducts, buttresses and dark skies

Down in the Tube station at midnight; tired, drunk, bawdy, resigned.
From another angle. All the drama of London life - but no happiness to share.
I am sure that this sculpture, after the passage of decades, will become another icon of London. Today, the vision is still too fresh, too uncomfortably edgy. Meaning will be ascribed to individual panels of the frieze - and to the main figures towering 30ft (9m) over the concourse. Initially it was said to be banal (compared the the splendid portrayal of  Sir John Betjeman gazing appreciatively at the station's magnificent roof) - yet in time, the sculpture will become well-loved symbols of travel - parting and reuniting.

If you are passing through St Pancras on your way to London or on your way out via Eurostar or Luton airport, to take time - at least half an hour - to wander around this magnificent station - my favourite.

This time last year:
Cycling to work - the new season begins

This time four years ago:  
Five weeks into Lent

Saturday, 30 March 2013

What have we learned?

Time to sum up the past six-and-half weeks with Tischner czyta Katechizm, as Lent approaches its end. The book offers a perspective on how faith has been seen down the ages, and how the Catholic Church has shifted its stance on many issues of dogma. In particular, the new catechism, published in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, has modernised the Church, yet opened up a potentially destructive rift between the liberal wing (of whom Fr. Tischner was clearly a member) and the traditionalist tendency.

What have we learned? What new insights has the book brought me? More questions than answers...

Capax Dei: the notion that we are capable of God - open to God's love. Big question for me: it seems from the book that not everyone is capax dei. And indeed, Fides quaerens intellectum, the dictum of St Augustine of Hippo - faith seeks understanding. Fr. Tischner suggests that Augustinian thinking stood behind the Reformation, hence the old Tridentine Catholic catechism is light on St Augustine. Fides quaerens intellectum, works the other way - God seeks those who seek God. "He has the right not to want to be followed by stupid people," he says, a sharp attack on those who believe blindly and seek not to understand. It was a not-so veiled attack on the nationalistic, politicised form of Catholicism that was just beginning crystallise around Radio Maryja in the mid-90s and today stands as the biggest threat to the Church in Poland.

The Second Vatican Council was a belated reaction to the Copernican revolution, to the Reformation, to the evolution of democracy. The catechism that stemmed from it was less Church-centric, and more man-centric - this is one of the central themes of the book.

Metaphors I found useful: Fr. Tischner says that the spiritual journey is like walking up a mountain; you should never stop on the journey to admire the landscape, thinking that to be an absolute, because every step further up the mountain gives you an enhanced view. The path to Absolute Good is never-ending; God bids us to keep climbing ever higher and higher. "What you see, what you can see, what you will see, depends on how high you have climbed", says Fr. Tischner.

Not much in the book about the Holy Trinity (only a handful of passing mentions), nor about the nature of Satan (I suspect that Fr. Tischner, like St. Augustine, does not believe in the devil other than as the absence of God).

My understanding of what the Church means by the Transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ has been enhanced by the insight that God's consciousness resides within them after the Liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass. A better understanding, though not a conviction.

Reading the book in a detailed way prompted me to look up on Wikipedia many of the saints and philosophers that shaped Christian thinking over the centuries. St Augustine, St Francis of Assisi, St John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Edmund Husserl.

Fr. Tischner is also good (as someone who's never married or had children) at talking about the notion of the drama of life as a trial; how we are to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune within the context of redemption and God's love for us.

Dialogue is all important to Fr. Tischner. The new catechism expects us to engage in dialogue, to seek shared dreams, to understand what the other side is praying for and working towards, rather than seeking out heresies and differences between ourselves. Prayer as a meaningful dialogue with God is discussed in the book, although Fr. Tischner takes it for granted that the reader understands from first-hand experience the way prayer works.

Revelation - according to the Church, there's been only one - Christ's revelation on the Cross, His sacrifice, which gives us the opportunity of Redemption. No more Saviours, no more Messiahs. And this across a Universe of billions of galaxies and billion billion solar systems. For tens of billions of years. No more miracles. Not too sure on this one, I'll say diplomatically.

The chapters on society, democracy, social justice - I felt these should be outside of the scope of the Church's interests, but nonetheless, Fr. Tischner's expositions on these issues were enlightening, if only to see how much of the temporal matters to the spiritual.

More tomorrow from me on, in particular how I view God. In the meanwhile, at this stage I humbly give thanks for having had the opportunity this Lent to take on a spiritual rather than purely bodily journey. I have grown personally and gained much spiritual insight, for which I am truly grateful.

This time last year:
Ealing in bloom - early spring

This time five years ago:
Swans pay us a visit

Friday, 29 March 2013


The final chapter of Tischner czyta Katechizm, my reading matter for Good Friday, the long Lenten road almost run. Judging by falling readership, e-mails and comments, my decision to take a spiritual journey this Lent has not been a popular one. Yet it has been Most fruitful for me; I have gained many meaningful insights into Catholicism, Christianity and religion in general, it has been helpful in progressing me in my ceaseless spiritual journey. More on this tomorrow and on Easter Sunday, a two-part summary of my Lenten quest.

But today - the 25th conversation between Fr. Tischner and journalist Jacek Żakowski looks at Heaven. Fr. Tischner begins with St. Augustine's assertion that our restless hearts all seek peace in God. The key question, says Żakowski, is whether "living in heaven we maintain there - what's more - we rediscover - our true identities - or do we dissolve into some expanse?"

This is, I think, crucial to the question of the afterlife. Does our individual consciousness persist after physical death? One thing is scientifically certain - the atoms of which we are composed will be recycled. This is a process that begins before birth. Atoms, molecules, enter us, as air and water and food, then stay within us for some while (apparently hardly any molecules in our bodies has been with us for more than nine years), then out again - with exhaled air, excreta, urine, tears, sweat, cut hair and nails, shed skin, spilt blood, all carrying away from our bodies molecules, atoms that were once an intrinsic part of us. The rest, the atoms that comprise us as life departs from our bodies, will likewise find a way back into the universe. And these atoms have been around for billions of years; they have been inside stars, they have travelled across space to be a part of us now, this instant in time, as we read these words. And these atoms will persist. Do they carry anything other than mass and energy? Science doesn't yet know.

But back to individual-vs-whole. The catechism says that "heaven is the happy community of all those, who are perfectly united in Christ." But are humans ready to be united in a community? Their very nature is competitive. they dream, they strive, they plot conflict; they want to be winners; but for every one champion there are scores of losers. Striving for happiness is all to often in our lives at the expense of others. So how will happiness look in heaven?

Fr. Tischner talks of a tailor-made heaven, according to one's own vision; an aesthetic heaven, infinitely pleasing to the aesthete's sensibilities; the catechism uses the word 'harmony'; 'heaven is where an infinite and eternal harmony reigns'. But the catechism's vision of heaven is not so much an aesthetic one as a philosophical one, says Fr. Tischner. "There will you find truth. Those who strove all their lives to find truth, will finally discover how it really was," he says.

"In one lifetime?" I wrote in the margin. One lifetime of being good, avoiding doing bad things, and bingo! your consciousness, maintaining its current, earthly identity, will get to know the truth of everything? And while Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski go off on a slight tangent to consider heaven as a Góral wedding feast, I find myself pondering my notion of heaven. Namely, its being the Memory and Understanding of All Things, Ever, Everywhere. Being IN God rather than WITH God. Part of a continuous whole. Being everyone that ever was; having their consciousness. Being as concerned about everyone as you currently are about yourself. This is how I see heaven - merging as one into God, pure and total understanding and will.

Fr. Tischner talks of the foundations of heaven being built on earth, heaven being the continuation of earth (presumably also the continuation of life on other planets bearing sentient life). "Here on earth the miracle of turning evil into good... Heaven is the work of God and man," he says.

Żakowski asks whether there can be a heaven in which there is happiness without hope. "Indeed, can there be perfect good without hope," he asks, posing a very philosophical question here. Fr Tischner replies quoting St. Paul: 'Faith passes, hope passes, love remains'. Hopes have been fulfilled. Hope has melted into love. 'Neither the eye has seen, nor the ear has heard, that which God has prepared for those that love Him'. Heaven grows with the measure of our love today. Our loves on this earth undergo various trials. After every trial, love deepens, grows. Our love is a down-payment on heaven. Heaven does not appear from nowhere. We have something of heaven within us. Something that we pass on to others. We can be a little bit of heaven to one another. Unfortunately, we can also be a bit of hell."

And so, with 'hell' being the final word in the chapter about heaven, we reach the end of the book; a final paragraph ends with an admonition to read the catechism. Nothing in the chapter about hell (more in the catechism indeed; which says that hell is the abode of those 'deprived of the vision of God').

I can partially buy into that metaphor, though eventually, though it take some of our consciousnesses longer, we will all merge into God as we grow towards ultimate understanding. Though not in one lifetime. It's not a one-shot game; it takes an eternity to grow from zero to one.

This time last year:
A wee taste of Edinburgh

This time three years ago:
First long bike ride of the season

This time four years ago:
Life returns to Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Early spring dusk

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Last Judgment at Doomsday

The penultimate conversation between Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski concerns the Catholic doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead, who will come to life at the end of the world, to be judged by God, after which there will be eternal reward or punishment.

A very difficult notion for me to accept. While the eventual fate of planet Earth is known (it will be swallowed up by an expanding Sun some five billion years from now, long before which time all life will have ceased to exist, a mere billion years from now), the fate of the Universe is not. [See competing theories here - Ultimate fate of the Universe] And God, being the God of the entire Universe, not just of planet Earth, nor of Christians, no doubt has other plans.

Nevertheless, some ideas in the chapter that resonate with me. Żakowski asks whether this bodily resurrection concept is not something invented to assuage our attachment to life. Fr. Tischner replies, paraphrasing the words of Jesus Christ, saying that something will change, but our identity will be retained.

Here we should pause for reflection. The Christian notion that an individual lives one life, and on the basis of the moral quality of that one life that individual is either rewarded with an eternity in heaven or punished by an  eternity in hell - is to me deeply questionable. I won't set out my ontological views here, in this post (readers will have to wait until Easter Sunday), but that one-shot chance at redemption set against the aeons of time and the vastness of the universe, seems limited by 1st Century AD imagination.

The individual nature of our identity, spread out against time and space, needs careful consideration. Again, not here or now.

Fr. Tischner attempts to describe how we will look after our resurrection "Our body after it is resurrected will look like the body of the resurrected Christ. It was easy to recognise Christ after his resurrection. The appearance was, I think, identical. On his body there weren't even any scars from his wounds."

Żakowski asks whether our resurrected bodies will be those of children, adolescents, mature adults or as old people. Fr. Tischner replies that theologians have had many conjectures, but tend towards the conviction that the body we resurrect with will be subject to our will; the body we most loved.

This kind of debate, of the nature of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, is, I think quite spurious and indeed futile, as I really don't buy this notion of bodily resurrection. However, the identity of our consciousness is a different matter, and here, I think our dreams are a good indicator. Despite my 55 years of age, in my dreams I am ageless, a young mature adult. And so it has been ever since I became a young mature adult, unless the dream is of hair-loss or some other age-related anxiety, though such dreams are mercifully rare.

We move on to the Apocalypse. The Greek word means 'an uncovering', of truth, for instance, or 'revelation', a revealing. Yet the word has come to mean 'ultimate catastrophe' - unleashed by global war or intense climate change or pandemic. St. John's Apocalypse - the Book of Revelation, is full of symbols designed to inspire shock and awe, signs in the sky, that the Son of Man, brings at once hope, and the impending end of the world.

And with it, the Final Judgement.

According to whose criteria will we be judged? Liberal, wishy-washy criteria? Or the fire-and-brimstone criteria of the Integrists? The Bible says 'all will be uncovered/revealed'.

Fr. Tischner says that the Last Judgment functions in Christianity as a court, which will uncover before each person their responsibility. All the masks, artifices and disguises which you cover yourself with during your life will be stripped away. The naked truth about oneself will be made manifest.

But, I pencilled in the margins, what truth? Whose truth? Surely one man's sin (eating pork, for example) is not a sin for another.

For me, it is the individual conscience, which either allows a man to sleep easy, or bothers him relentlessly, that determines whether we die at peace with ourselves and the world - or not. Shakespeare's Hamlet: 'To die - to sleep. To sleep to dream, aye, there's the rub'. Shakespeare's imagination could envisage one's conscience continuing to plague one's consciousness even after death. This resonates with me.

Will the Last Judgment bring justice? (Here, we are not talking any longer of social justice, but of the individual kind). Fr. Tischner: "On this earth virtue is not rewarded, nor crime punished. And if the world is sensible, reasonable, then the Final Judgment is a final demand from our conscience."

Żakowski asks whether we shall be judged according to our own conscience. "Will you be judged according to your intentions or according to the arguments of others?" "The Bible says that we have already judged ourselves... It lies within our powers to be evil" Again, here I disagree. Our genetic make-up, our upbringing, our life's experience, determine this to a great extent. I certainly don't have the capacity for evil - I have no desire to commit evil acts - from this point of view, I am powerless to be evil.

The capacity to be evil Fr. Tischner calls saying 'no' to God. "When God is calling to them to follow, and they say to Him, continuously, 'No! We will not go!' God, having created us with a free will, has in this way limited Himself."

I wouldn't agree. People born or raised with a capacity for evil - tyrants, murderers, thieves - will all justify their actions, and may not even be troubled by a guilty conscience. Would a Stalin or Hitler be plagued by guilt? I doubt it. But a good man may lose sleep over a good deed left undone. Conscience is indeed an individual matter.

But in essence I find myself rejecting the notion of bodily resurrection and a Last Judgment as being little more than a metaphor used for two millennia by the Church to impose social order, not in itself a bad intention, just an incorrect one.

The final chapter/conversation of Tischner czyta Katechizm considers Heaven. Stay tuned!

This time last year:
Sunny Scotland at +23.9C 

This time two years ago:
The iconic taste of Marmite

This time three years ago:

This time four year ago:

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Death, our sister

Fr. Tischner begins the 23rd conversation with Jacek Żakowski, entitled 'Death', with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: "Death is our sister". The catechism speaks of human death, and the stance of a Christian towards death. "The Book of Genesis speaks of death coming to this world as a punishment for original sin. Punishment is not revenge. Where there's revenge, there's no hope. But where there is punishment, there is hope that after the punishment, there is release, there is liberation," he says.

Żakowski asks whether for a believing person, death is not a successive trial to be undergone, a curtain to pass through, a liberation from the various burdens in this vale of tears. "Do you not see a paradox in this Christian conundrum? On the one hand, a promise, hope of eternal life, on the other, the fear of dying and the sorrow of those who remain?"

"You see this conundrum in Christ's attitude. Reading the Gospel, you can see the paradox, the contrast. On the one hand, the vision - the promise - of ascension, and on the other, Christ's great attachment to life. The words 'life' is spoken by Him most often; He brought us the word of life, he gave us the food of life... We know from the Gospel that three times he brought dead people back to life," says Fr. Tischner.

"As if our presence here on earth was of such value that it had to be protected even with miracles?" asks Żakowski. Fr. Tischner replies: "It's as though Christ physically could not stand the sight of death. On the other hand, He continually thought about death; thoughts of death accompanied him continually. There is the notion that Christ knew that He lived at the cost of the innocent children that Herod had slain at the time of His birth. The vision of the death of those innocents must have accompanied him continually. It must have formed His consciousness as a man." "Żakowski continues: "Certainly not even Christ did not think that the innocents were deprived of the hardship of earthly life, that they could go straight to eternity, not suffering heavy trials. He thought that they had paid the price of His coming to earth, that something had been taken from them." "Yes," replies Fr. Tischner. "He felt sorry that - although they had something more magnificent - they had indeed have something taken from them."

"As He approached His death, Christ lets us know of His terror, His human fear of dying. This was particularly strong in the Garden of Gethsemane. The thought that if possible 'take this chalice from me', though 'let not my will, but Thy will be done" Again, we have a hierarchy of values, 'Thy will' and death. If it is possible, let death not be," says Fr. Tischner.

"And who, compared to Him, could have that same certainty, that behind curtain, something truely exists?" asks Żakowski.

Fr. Tischner explains that Christ had the problem of turning what is a human curse into something that could be a liberation; changing the nature of death. Philosophers have written much about death, says Fr. Tischner. He mentions the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, "an outstanding thinker," among whose archives Fr. Tischner came across his analysis of death. "The sense of it was that death is only a phenomenon, an illusion... Husserl says that there's something in us that allows us to transform death into the illusion of death. He believed this right up to his death. To the last moment, he was writing, analysing his experiences. He'd write on whatever came to hand... he finally reached the point at which he lost the strength to write, so he said: 'Sister, I see a great light - please note this down.' The nun went for paper, when she returned, he was dead. To the last moment he was a researcher and teacher."

Another philosopher that Fr. Tischner mentions is Heidegger, a pupil of Husserl's "who had a different vision of death, which he describes in musical terms, as the final chord in the music of our lives." As our lives approach their fulfilment, that final chord, which is always within us, mute, maturing, awaiting. "Death is the fruit of life; it builds within us, it builds us and we build ourselves thanks to the awareness of that final chord," explains Fr. Tischner.

Żakowski says: "You speak at those we live reconciled with death. Everyone has the awareness that in the end we die. Yet stronger that the banal awareness of the end is fear."

Fr. Tischner replies: "That fear causes us to give our death a particular significance. Death is a moment, and yet its meaning must last. People seek significance for their death - to die for their country, for instance, to give their death sense. The fear surrounding death is uncertainty, the deepest loneliness, it is something you experience alone - and at the same time we attempt to give death a significance, there's more to the episode of one's passing than it appears."

Fr. Tischner discusses the notion of dying in time - not prolonging one's existence. "Having done in life all that there was to do, death can be seen a complement to life, a completion. Hemingway, when he felt he had nothing left to say, quit." "It's said of Hemingway that it was fear - fear of being left useless, fruitless, that prompted him," says Żakowski. "Yes," replies Fr. Tischner. "For some, life becomes so unbearable that only death offers a release from the burdens of life, of illness, for intolerable pain."

"But do they not fear being immaterial, without a body?" asks Żakowski. "A person is unable to imagine continuing without a human body, not knowing where one's going?" Fr. Tischner replies: "It is outside our imagination. Kierkegaarde speaks of 'fear and trembling'. Do you know what trembles? the body trembles. This was Christ's problem. I think he solved the problem on the cross. The catechism says that revelation occurs not through words alone, but through deeds. What Christ did is also for us a book of revelations. Death on the cross was particularly cruel; it was devised to break the spirit of rebellious slaves, causing them to die in a way so atrociously cruel, to be seen to lose face, so the face of a rebel became the face of someone defeated."

He continues: "It was different with Christ. Something extraordinary happened. He is broken; full of woe: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' But then comes an act of unshakeable faith: 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' The words 'why have you forsaken me?' is Christ becoming human, God incarnate. Only then - as a man - dying alone, ready, abandoning his individuality - He says ' into your hands I commit my spirit'. And His death redeems. Redeems mankind". [Sayings of Jesus on the cross]

"Then, St. Paul says: 'We all die in Christ' Who knows how this happens? I think that human nature undergoes transformation. What was meant to be mankind's curse becomes a gate of life. From 'why have you forsaken me?' to 'into your hands I commit my spirit'. Hope overcomes death. Onto the other side of life we pass as children of hope," concludes Fr. Tischner.

This time last year:
First bike ride to work of the year

This time three years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time four years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time five years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Monday, 25 March 2013

Whither the Church?

The 22nd conversation of Tischner czyta Katechizm opens the fourth and final part of the book, and concerns the Church - in particular, its future. Fr. Tischner points out that the Church pre-dates the European nation state - and says that the Church will see the third millennium through to the end, while he expresses doubts as to whether Poland, Germany or France will do so.

"The Apostolate is not diplomacy, cabalism or juggling, but sincere prophecy," says Fr. Tischner of the Church. And the Church, says the catechism, "calls to all people, faithful Catholics, as are others believing in Christ, and indeed all people that by the grace of God are called to be redeemed." Jacek Żakowski says "Everyone and no one".

Fr. Tischner says that at the very heart of the Church is Christ, alive in history. "Surrounding Him is the great human organism, the good and the bad, the honest and the dishonest. Each one rooted in the living Christ." I have pencilled in signs of my own doubt in this statement.

Żakowski says that this vision is incomplete, as it does not mention the understanding between the Church and the state. And at this point I note that the Concordat - the document regulating the relationship between the Republic of Poland and the Vatican - had indeed been signed in 1993, but was not finally ratified by the Polish parliament until 1998, two years after the conversations in this book were first recorded.

Fr. Tischner sets out the tension between the Institution  and Christ, between the Office and the Charisma. The regulations, the opening hours, the representatives, the discipline - and at the heart of this - the mystery of great reality.  What can be done to ensure that this mystery be expressed through an institution?

And here, Fr. Tischner sets out the great fault line in the Catholic Church of today - that between the liberal tendency - ecumenical, seeking understanding with all other religions, in order to become one Church of one God - and the integrists - seeking certainty in tradition, the rights of God, not the rights of man, critical of the Vatican Council, critical of the liberal, ecumenical tendency. The liberals, Fr. Tischner, are epitomised by Hans Küng, the integrists, by Marcel Lefebvre.

Żakowski asks whether there can possibly be a way of reconciling these two tendencies. "Do you not have the feeling that the Church is coming apart? Is the Church not falling for that great 20th Century madness - to improve, to change, to repair everything? In this madness, is the Church not beginning to lose its identity?"

Fr. Tischner calls for dialogue, between the capax Dei; dialogue based on the presence of Christ at the centre of the Church. "Dialogue regarding female priests, and and end to celibacy among clergymen - these are not problems in themselves, but issues that reside within the mystery of the Church. Dialogue is key, dialogue is the perspective. Not just an exchange of beautiful words, but of continual, mutual choosing."

Żakowski points to falling Church attendances since the Vatican Council. "The Church is simmering intellectually, but this does not attract new faithful. And the world is getting ever more secular".

Fr. Tischner says that maybe the Church is not presenting the Good News sufficiently effectively. Many people choose to close their eyes on the tensions within the Church. "Many clergymen die, convinced that they have been witnesses to defeat." Asked by Żakowski whether he thinks that way too, Fr. Tischner replies: "Me - the opposite. I think that from these tensions arises a deep truth, the depth of reality. We disagree with the Church, we don't like this; that we'd like to improve, something else we don't  understand. But who would we be, if we didn't have the Church?"

The question, sadly is not answered; this chapter is prophetic. The Fr. Rydzyk wing of the Polish Church was still then only a vociferous minority; Pope John Paul II was the great authority holding the Polish Church together. The future for a Polish Church in which the integrists hold the upper hand, an intolerant and backward looking Church will ensure falling congregations.

This time last year:
Crossing Warsaw's newest bridge on foot

This time two years ago:
Crossing another Vistula bridge on foot
[25 March evidently attracts this activity!]

This time four years ago:
Look at the snow! LOOK AT THE SNOW!

This time five years ago:
Summing up at the end of Lent

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Justice - of the social kind

With a week of Lent to do, on to conversation/chapter 21 of Tischner czyta Katechizm, in which Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski discuss the topic of justice. I was expecting something here about the death sentence and punishing wrong-doers.

But no.

The justice discussed by Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski is social justice - the balance between rich and poor. The winners and losers. Not so much why some are blessed with talents and wealth, but what to do in the face of inequality.

The notion of equality is roundly dismissed by the catechism - if everyone were equal, there would be no opportunity for displays of Christian charity. Fr. Tischner quotes St. Catherine of Siena, herself quoting Christ (who she claimed spoke through her): "I wanted people to need people, and to be my servants in passing on the gifts that they have received from me."

Żakowski notes that in the 2,000 years since Christ was around, inequality persists, glaring want in the face of opulent riches. Fr. Tischner makes the point that economic inequality is worse than social inequality; it is worse not to have bread than not to have the vote.

Fr. Tischner lists some of the Church's charitable institutions - hospitals, orphanages, refuges, that have been established over the centuries, manifestations of mercy. But Żakowski ripostes that for centuries the Church accepted slavery and serfdom. "The Church did not legitimise economic inequality," replies Fr. Tischner. But Żakowski presses on: "There was never any radical opposition to injustice! Only attempts at explaining its existence and justifying it."

Fr. Tischner points out that communism would not have been necessary [was it ever necessary? I ask] had Christianity succeeded in tackling social issues in the 19th Century.  "Today, however, the principles of private property and a vision of human labour are the starting points." He points to Christian sects - Arians, Mennonites, Hutterites, who have eschewed private property and in the name of equality have rejected the conviction that some must beg, while others must give alms. "Communist Christianity, even".

He continues: "The birth of communism in the 19th Century stemmed from the notion that all the evil in the world is the result from the 'sin' of private property. From private property grow all other sins. And economic equality between people could be enforced by violence - taking from one to give to another. An illusion that a better world is easy to build, through violence. Communism's vision of evil was very clear. It's easy to point a finger at who's bad, and who's good. It's harder to unmask evil when it resides within a person. But when you say that ownership of possessions is evil, those who have are evil, those who have much are the most evil. To deal with such evil is simple - take the possessions and divide them."

"The difference between the early Christians, who following in Christ's footsteps and communists was that those Christians gave away to the poor only that which belonged to them. Communists gave away other people's possessions. It soon became apparent that giving away what belonged to others leads to a disappearance of responsibility for building, for creating. The tendency to consume overcomes human creativity."

"Capitalist consumptionism has not even reached the ankles of communist consumptionism", points out Fr. Tischner, who, as I said earlier, had experienced rather less of the former than the latter. "In order to consume, a capitalist must first have something, create something. In communism, one consumed things one never had. Hence the unbridled irresponsibility."

This thread leads us on to the nature of work, which in the communist system was never rewarding to the worker. There was little sense in working hard, there being no personal reward in it. "Communism treated work as a form of struggle. The class struggle was conducted in the workplace. In the communist system, it was said that the worst evil was the exploitation of the working person. Today, it must be said that a far worse evil is the exploitation of the employer, pretending to work. When one lies at work, lying becomes a way of life. We have in Poland today, the aftermath of communism; people pretending to work."

A hard-hitting statement. Since those words were spoken, Poland has endured three economic slow-downs which have shaken the work-shy out of the private sector to a great degree, as have better management practices and employee motivation schemes. However, in the public sector, the idea of the full-time, regular post that requires little or no real effort on the part of the employee, persists.

Fr. Tischner continues: "Capitalism gives people a chance, but it also creates the dangers of unemployment and greater social stratification." It must be added here, that in 1990, at the end of communism, Poland had the lowest co-efficient of inequality in the world, along with Japan, just that it was poverty that was equality spread around society.

Drawing to a conclusion, Fr. Tischner states that Pope John Paul II's concept regarding poverty and unemployment tends towards social democracy. "Work is about more than earning money. The aim of work is the human good, and capital should serve mankind". All very nice, tell that to Wall Street and the City of London.

The post-Vatican Council Church has adopted then 'option for the poor', stemming from liberation theology. Having rejected the Marxist content of this strand of Catholicism, the Church focused on those passages from the Gospels - in particular the Sermon on the Mount (which include the beatitudes - 'blessed are the poor in spirit' etc), setting out its concern for the fate of the weak. "This at last allowed us to understand the words of Christ that 'what over you have done to the poor, you have done unto me'," says Fr. Tischner.

Żakowski asks about such forgotten systems that the Church toyed with at the end of the 19th Century, such as corporatism. "The moral inspiration [of the Church's social teachings] remain," says Fr. Tischner, pointing to the common use of the word 'solidarity' in the Church's current thinking on social justice. "When it comes to social problems - to issues of poverty and inequality - the word 'Solidarity' is a beautiful leaf which the wind of the Holy Spirit has blown from the Poland and tied into the heart of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is our humble contribution to the third millennium."

I found this chapter rather thin; the Church straying into areas temporal, into areas for democratically elected policy makers. Inequality will be with us always; we can strive only to limit it in ways that do not hold back the creativity and dynamism of those with most to contribute to society. Equality of opportunity, removing as many of the handicaps of those unfortunate enough to be born at the bottom rungs of the ladder, should be a greater goal than equality per se. For there is injustice in taking (via taxes) money from hard-working people in poorly-paid jobs and transferring it to those who don't wish to work.

This time last year:
Google Street View comes to Poland

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Church and democracy

Having come up with the unambiguous answer to the question - what should be the relation between the Church and the state - totally separate - Fr. Tischner shows himself to be a liberal in matters temporal. He continues the theme in the twentieth conversation with Jacek Żakowski, on the theme of democracy.

Fr. Tischner reserves the right for the Church to criticise democracy in order to improve it rather than to bring about its downfall, to strengthen freedom, not to weaken it.

It's worth remembering that Tischner czyta Katechizm was a series of TV conversations that became a best-selling book in the mid-1990s, when Poland's experience of democracy was but a few years old and not fully taken root after 50 years of totalitarianism. Fr. Tischner talks about human rights as though the subject was a 20th Century invention ("Now a new element introduced by the 20th Century has appeared - the conflict over human rights" as though Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke hadn't been deliberating over this notion two centuries earlier).

The traumatic experience of the French Revolution had a profound influence on the Church's attitude to democracy and republics. The 20th Century saw the Church moving away from merely protecting its own interests towards the struggle for human rights. "One tendency in this has been liberation theology. One can have many misgivings towards it, its links with Marxism, but it did carry with it something very valuable - the struggle for human dignity, not only for Catholics' rights. The other tendency was the Polish struggle with communism. Cardinal Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, said that the Church was not looking for privileges for itself, but was struggling for human rights, something that was distinct in the Polish tradition... The Church in Poland moved deeply into the political sphere. Not politics as in a battle between different parties, but politics understood as a dispute between concepts of which political system is best for the state. This was unprecedented," said Fr. Tischner.

"The catechism clearly states that the Church can exist in every form of political system. But does this mean mean that the Church treats every political system the same way? I think that if one accepts the idea of human rights, one can no longer treat every system the same way," says Fr. Tischner. "Not even enlightened absolutism," asks Żakowski. "Not any more!" replies Fr. Tischner. "There are signals in the catechism that indicate that in the hierarchy of systems, democracy rises to the top."

 Żakowski asks whether the traditional alliance of the altar and the throne has been replaced by an alliance of  the altar and liberty. "The altar and human rights," replies Fr. Tischner. "The catechism rejects totalitarianism and collectivism. This is clearly written." Żakowski quotes from the catechism: "The Church has rejected totalitarian and atheistic ideologies, connected in current times with 'communism' or 'socialism'. Moreover, it has rejected in practice the 'capitalism' of individualism or the absolute primacy of market forces over human labour."

This suggests the Church is searching for a middle way, between communism and capitalism, between collectivism and individualism. Fr. Tischner notes the use in the catechism of the phrase first used by the liberation theologians of the 1960s, 'structural [or institutional or systemic] sin'. "Once, sin was always linked to the individual. Now - a bit metaphorically - it is said that within the state there can exist 'structural sin'. When you find yourself within it, there's little you can do. It grinds you, transforms you; as much as you want, you are taking part in sin. Totalitarian systems are brilliant at creating such structures that can turn people's best intentions against them. You speak only the truth; they will turn you into an informer. You respect the law; they will turn you into a censor. You are hard-working; they will make you build prisons. The catechism has condemned this," he says.

Fr. Tischner continues: "One can judge that of all the political systems, it is democracy that's nearest to the Church. The state has within it something of the earthly demon about it. That's why the catechism says that there should only be as much state as is necessary. The state should not usurp powers for itself, taking away citizens' powers to solve problems that they could solve without it. It's said the state's role should be limited to two things: protecting security and raising taxes. All other problems can be solved without the state's intervention." A rather simplistic view, but remember, Fr. Tischner had spent all but five years of his adult life living under one totalitarian regime or another.

 Żakowski asks "Of all the systems in the world, the Church has chosen democracy, has accepted democracy?" Fr. Tischner replies in one word - "Yes."

 Żakowski then raises the case of Paul Touvier, a French WW2 collaborator who worked for Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, who was sentenced to death for his part in murdering Jews and members of the French Resistance. Touvier was given sanctuary by sympathetic priests for nearly 40 years after the war. "Did the churchmen who sheltered him accept the verdict of a democratically appointed court?

Fr. Tischner's reply begins with the aftermath of the French Revolution, with its anti-clericalism and secularisation of the state. The French Church did not accept democracy, the republic, founded on the guillotine. The churchmen - "as representatives of Christian morality" - did not accept the state's verdict. They also cited the supremacy of conscience and mercy over the court's verdict. They considered God's justice to be higher than that of the state. "A democratic court does not have the right to issue a death sentence, because the court of God says 'be merciful'. And these churchmen, as representatives of that Divine court, were merciful," says Fr. Tischner, citing the French Church's special commission headed by Cardinal de Courtray that looked into the Touvier case.

This case is central to the chapter on democracy and occupies four pages. Żakowski asks Fr. Tischner what he would have done had Touvier come to him asking for sanctuary. "There is no easy answer," replies Fr. Tischner. "This is a fundamental conflict. It appears in the Gospels; Christ saying 'render unto Caesar  the things that are  Caesar's, and render unto God the things that are God's'... I don't know how I'd have solved the Touvier case, had he come to me. But I do know that there are two kinds of authority: state and religious. State authority should be fully moral, in keeping with ethics. That is the concern of the state. And religious authority should also be ethical, but should also bear in mind that mercy rises above justice. How to reconcile the two, this will be a question for the third millennium."

The Church has indeed moved a long way from the deeply unpleasant institution it was in say, Franco's Spain, where the dirt-poor and downtrodden peasants and workers were kept in place by a pampered clergy, or across Latin America where for much of the past century it sided with various caudillos.

The next chapter looks in greater detail at the issue of justice.

This time last year:
Prime lens or zoom?

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's failed bid as City of Culture, 2016

This time three years ago:
Stalinist downtown at dusk

This time four years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess?

This time five years ago:
Snowy Easter in England

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Church and state

Judging by the title, Church and state, I thought the nineteenth chapter of Tischner czyta Katechizm would be ultimately boring - the church and the state should stay well separated, end of story. To my surprise, Fr. Tischner reaches the very same uncompromising conclusion, without any ifs or buts. Yet in reaching it, he discusses some very interesting historical and philosophical points, which make the chapter a rewarding read.

Fr. Tischner begins with a sweeping assertion. "I'm troubled by the easy with which people of the Church give in to temptations flowing from authority, most often from the state. They [people of the church] are immune to persecution. But they not very immune to enticing promises.

Too often, the Church had entered into alliances with absolutist monarchs or fascist states, he says. The Catholic Church in Germany is a good case study in how well-meaning theologians were all too easily swayed to support national socialism. Fr. Tischner cites Catholic dogmatist Professor Michael Schmaus and Archbishop of Breslau, Adolf Bertram, both of whom (initially at least) regarded the Nazis as a strong force countering the godless anarchy. These "outstanding thinkers, the very summit of inter-war German theology... opened for Hitler the doors to power in Germany - and also opened the the way to Stalingrad for ordinary German soldiers."

What then, is the structure of temptation? "The heroes of the age of persecution become collaborators in an epoch of privilege. The archbishop and the professor were both people of good will. "They had the absurd hope that Hitler was bringing something positive. Hitler spoke much about the moral renewal of the nation. And in the ears of priests, such words sounded attractive. Promises of a church-state concordat, religious education in schools - all this, against a background of the painful experience of the Weimar republic - and further back in history, the French Revolution," recounts Fr. Tischner.

"Why did the Catholic Church in Germany have such a distrust for democracy? This distrust was not accidental, it had very deep doctrinal roots. In Germany, in France, democracy was born in a world torn apart by religious wars. And religious wars were wars about Truth. Democracies arose from the idea, first formulated by Thomas Hobbes, who wrote "non veritas sed auctoritas facit legem" - not the truth but authority makes law. And for the Church, the authority should be the authority of truth. The Church is convinced that you cannot separate power from truth, because then everything becomes possible," says Fr. Tischner.

"These views clashed and clash to this day. But the clash reached its climax over the 20 years after Hitler, during the Second Vatican Council. Memories of the mistakes made by the Catholic Church in Germany were still very painful. And against this background the conflict between the integrists and the liberals," he says. Spelling out the causes of the rift, he quotes the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Colombo, who said in 1977: "The state should be entirely secular, without religion", and the reaction to this statement from Archbishop Lefebvre, outraged that a cardinal should say such things, that 'rotten liberalism' had permeated to the very heart of the Church.

The notion of liberalism should be contemplated further; it is not libertinism, not free-for-all, but a more humanist notion of freedom within behavioural constraints agreed by consensus within society. The danger, for the Church, is that liberalism does not need a God.

Jacek Żakowski says that Archbishop Lefebvre sentiments are resonating increasingly in Poland. He quotes an article from Słowo - Dziennik Katolicki: "The doctrine of separation of Church and state is basically false, because it is against man, against the family, against the nation. Can we," asks Żakowski, "transpose the revealed truth upon politics? Or is it that we are unable to transpose it directly onto politics, and therefore we should not mix it at all into matters of state?

Fr. Tischner replies: "If we indeed wish to create a truth-based state, then the privileged in that state would be those who espouse the truth. Catholics. Good Catholics. The state should therefore give them more rights than others, and give to them power, because they 'have truth'. This does not mean that we would necessarily have to persecute others; however, in a truth-based state, we must deny having believers in the truth and believers in lies on the same level."

Żakowski asks how the Church can escape this conundrum [which, in Poland, 17 years after the book was written, looks far more serious than it was then].

Fr. Tischner replies: "After WW2, the idea of the rights of man and human dignity began to mature within the Church." The Vatican Council's Declaration of Religious Freedom is quoted at length in the catechism: ' one should be forced to act against their conscience... This right is based on the very nature of man, that is why this right is a permanent entitlement even for those who do not fulfil their duty to seek the truth and abide by it.' Even for those! Even for those! Christ died for us all, so all of us have the same dignity. Pascal said that knowing God gives birth to pride; knowing man gives birth to despair. It is only through knowing Christ that we can see in Him our own misery and own own greatness. The greatness of man depends on the fact that Christ died for him; because of this, no one has the right to limit the rights of any of us. Even of those, who stray."

Żakowski asks the obvious question: " So the Church is to allow that society to stray in the name of the dignity of those, who are not right?"

"The Church should allow the state to establish its own harmonious coexistence within rules which concern the state. However, within the framework of those rules, giving everyone equal rights. The Church will proclaim the truth. But now without force, and without the help of the state. The Church will proclaim the truth about the dignity of man."

Very noble words, certainly words that the Lefebvrist, Marian wing of the Polish Catholic Church would not accept. How this will all hang together going forward remains to be seen.

Five weeks of Lent gone, a week and half to go, six more conversations ahead of me, which may yet shed some new light.

This time last year:
Scrub fire in Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Airbus A380 visits Warsaw

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Always let your conscience be your guide

An inconclusive chapter that tackles the issue of human conscience – that inner voice which guides one to do right – versus the Church's teachings. The discussion in the seventeenth chapter of Tischner czyta Katechizm takes me back to religious education classes as school. “Please Father, do we know for certain that Adolf Hitler is roasting in the fieriest pits of hell?”

Such questions do not move us forward. We need to take a look at that internal voice that guides us – often in complex moral issues that are far more nuanced than 'thou shalt not kill'. Fr. Tischner draws on Socrates, who "saaid he hears within him a voice, which rather prohibits than commands him. When you listen intently to that inner voice, you will confirm that it makes itself heard at times when a person is aware of his fall, when he begins to lower himself below his own level."

Fr. Tischner also cites Emmanuel Kant: “Act in such a way that your action could serve as a pattern or guide for all. So that whoever finds themselves in the same situation, should do the same.” A neat way of saying that altruism is for the common good. This is borne out in genetic theory – the point made by arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, that it is the survival of the gene that counts, a gene that is shared by our kin. The selfish gene theory gives animals – sentient or otherwise – the reason to sacrifice their own self-interest for that of others.

But back to the catechism. “In the depths of their own conscience, people discover law, which is not imposed, but which we should obey, and whose voice always calls us there, where we should go, to love, and to do good, and to avoid evil, that voice commands us from within...” Fr. Tischner calls this statement – from the Church “extraordinarily positive”. He draws on the example of Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment [I am so glad I read that book – it is so frequently cited!] who believed that the end justified the means – until he committed his crime, and finds himself totally alienated in face of the new reality. Raskolnikov is redeemed by Sonia, who has a far clearer moral compass.

The nature of this human compass comes up for review. Does one have to be educated to have a sense of moral direction - or is it innate? Fr. Tischner believes that education can lead to a falsification of the mind, and leans towards the innate vision of conscience.

Jacek Żakowski calls it “dangerous”, as it assumes that all people have a similar innate conscience (what I'd rather call 'sensibility' – in particular sensibility towards others. And indeed, as Żakowski points out, a new-found sensibility towards the environment.) The balance between what the Church teaches and what one's conscience commands has been a thorny one, culminating in the Holy Inquisition, and people tortured and killed for being deemed heretics. But today, the Church gives the individual's conscience the upper hand in determining what's right and what's wrong. “The Church says this: after weighing up all the pros and the cons, try to form in yourself a certain conscience and go according to that conscience.”

I must say I agree that innate conscience is a better guideline, but would question to what extent it is healthy in all people. Various disorders of the mind can distort what's considered the right and the wrong thing to do - religious fundamentalists are as often as not suffering from delusions that stem from variances from generally held norms of mental health.

This time last year:
Lenten recipe with prawns

This time three years ago:
Polish economy - recession thwarted

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Random sentiments from London's suburbs

In London these past few days, with a sense that the nation is unwell and looking for answers. I'm feeling distinctly less at ease here than in Warsaw, which despite a palpable slowdown in the economy still seems to know where its going.

Below: rain clouds brooding over Greenford Station, a unique station on the London Underground system; wooden escalators take you up to platform level, and a middle bay platform serves First Great Western trains from Paddington. A station built in the 1930s for a capital city rapidly sprawling outward.

Below: Keep calm and carry on shopping. A consumerist message for hard times. Incidentally, the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' slogan that was once intended as a wartime poster has a second life in these financially straitened times. The typeface, the design and variations on the slogan are very popular and visible in Britain today. The conference I attended yesterday and the day before had the slogan 'Business is Good for Britain', using the same font and layout.

Below: the suburbia I escaped to Warsaw from - dense sprawl of 1930s housing that stretches all the way from Kensal Rise in an uninterrupted arc to Ruislip and beyond. Pre-war houses converted for today's needs - neat front gardens turned over to off-street parking; kitchen extensions; loft conversions; double glazing; satellite dishes; burglar alarms. Looking across from the railway embankment between Greenford and South Greenford towards Wembley Stadium in the distance. Betjeman's Metro-land, though its charm has long since evaporated. "In fact, it's probably goodbye England," he said sadly of the sweeping tide of identical houses sweeping across once-rural Middlesex.

Below - the suburbia I do like; broad Edwardian avenues with grass verges - and an early spring. The suburban landscape between Ealing Broadway and my parents' house is an island of comparative beauty which peters out south and west of the railway lines and north of the A40. The spirit of place here is more genteel, more evocative of Britain's former years of splendour.

Can a nation turn around its decline? Refocus, regroup and attend an agenda of improved competitiveness? Address the issues of inequality without tempering drive? Look to the future rather than wallowing in nostalgia?

This time last year:
Stalinist neo-classicism in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
A week into Lent
[Easter was very late]

This time three years ago:
Afternoon-dusk-night in the city centre

This time four years ago:
A particularly harrowing reality

This time five years ago:
Wetlands waiting for the spring

Friday, 15 March 2013

" memory of me"

The seventeenth conversation between Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski is central to the Catholic faith and touches on a subject not hitherto even mentioned in the book – Holy Communion and the Eucharist.

The notion that the communion wafer and the altar wine are transformed – during every mass – into the body and blood of Christ. Not – as Fr. Tischner points out – a mere symbol of the body and blood of Christ – but the real thing. Transubstantiation. The central tenet of Catholicism.

It is reflected in the importance of the Last Supper, at which Jesus, aware of his impending death, in the presence of his disciples, brings bread and wine together with the words: 'Do this in memory of me.' And this has been ritualistically repeated in the Roman Catholic Church for the past 1,980 years (assuming the Crucifixion took place in 33 AD).

Fr. Tischner explains the importance of the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist as being an opposition to the Greek philosophy, which in itself was an escape from the body. “And here is God Himself saying 'This is my body.' For the Greeks, promises did not live in the body. For us, they do. We love our bodies, which is why we improve them as much as we can. St Francis of Assisi called his body 'his donkey', but then he had a kindly relationship with donkeys. I see in the Eucharist an enormous appreciation of the body. It is not a burden, but a positive value, a symbol of earthly hope, and hope in the eternal life, for our bodies will one day rise again from the dead.”

Jacek Żakowski asks to what extent is the transubstantiation a physical act, and to what extent is it something agreed among people – or a symbol. Fr. Tischer responds that during Mass, God is present in the communion wafer. “Present means: conscious”. WOW! That's a powerful assertion that I never heard in decades of religious instruction or church-going. Of course! To be present means to be conscious. So Divine Consciousness resides within the communion wafer? Whether mass is mumbled by a rather dim priest mechanically going through the ritual to a small, disinterested congregation, or whether it is held in a magnificent mediaeval cathedral and the priest holds his flock in thrall with a performance of deepest spiritual intensity?

Church-going is a mixed experience; sometimes I'm uplifted to new levels of spiritual enlightenment, more often than not I'm glancing at my watch and eyeing the exit. I'm sure it's like that for most.

Fr. Tischner does maintain one of the more important threads in this book – that the Church is a community of God, in history, and God will not be there unless we invite him. “The Eucharist is that reality through which, 'creating' God among us.”

“Creating God?” asks an incredulous Żakowski.

“Yes,” replies Fr. Tischner, “because if you don't come to this mass, and I don't come, then there will not be a Eucharist, so in some sense, neither will there be God in history! For two thousand years we carry it out, for two thousand years there are people on our earth that maintain that reality. If not for them, God would not be among us.”

A short chapter, barely six pages long, that only skates over the surface of the mystery of the Eucharist. My childhood memories of classes preparing us for First Holy Communion are still strong; there is still a lingering sense of wonder at the mystery, the ritual, the unique seriousness of it. Comparing other world religions, that climatic moment of the Catholic mass – when bread and wine are said to turn into the body and blood of the Divinity – is lacking in other religious services; they are commonplace without that quintessential mystery.

While accepting the intriguing logic of Fr. Tischner's assertion that God is conscious within the transubstantiatiated wafer – my question is – “and then what?” We swallow God's consciousness... what happens to us? I can now recall Sister Pauline at St Joseph's Church telling us six and seven year-olds that we enter a state of grace – I guess you either feel it or you don't. And the surroundings of an incense-filled cathedral with sunlight streaming through the stained glass and the singing of a choir of monks is far more likely to do it for me than a drab suburban church.

This time last year:
Cleaning sensors on my Nikons

This time two years ago:
Changing seasons and one's samopoczucie

This time three years ago:
Stunning late-winter beauty
[these are among my most gorgeous winter photos ever]

This time four years ago:
Lenten fare - Jeziorki gumbo

This time five years ago:
Digging up Dawidowska