Thursday, 28 February 2013

Tram smash at Wilanowska

A long day today, made longer by the after-effects of a crash involving a tram and a van on the junction of ul. Wilanowska and Puławska. The driver of the white Fiat van cut across the path of a north-bound number 10 tram. According to the TVN Warszawa reporter, the driver was trapped in the cab and had to be cut free by firemen. Taxi drivers on the scene told me that the van driver was seriously injured and that the traffic jam heading into town was over 2km long. Trams were caught up in the jam too; I was on a south-bound number 10, and at Wilanowska the driver ushered out all the passengers. North-bound trams were stationary all the way from Wilanowska to Al. Lotników.

Firemen examine the cab of the van after freeing the driver

Fire engines and the van blocking two lanes of Puławska and the taxi rank

Town-bound traffic had to squeeze past using three-quarters of one lane

The tram sustained a smashed windscreen. No reports of casualties.
This type of collision is sufficiently common for Warsaw's public transport authorities to make a video warning drivers about the danger. It is shown non-stop on the newer Swing trams with video screens, watched by tram passengers such as myself - but not by car drivers (or indeed van drivers from Poznań). Watch for yourself what happens when a tram hits a car at speed...

Revelations

The ninth conversation continues from where the eighth left off - Amo ergo sum - I love, therefore I am, the deepest definition of God, according to Fr. Tischner. "When you experience something like falling in love, or when a child is born to you, you feel that you truly exist." [As an aside, is this something that a Catholic priest can speak of from experience?] "St Augustine considered that in loving, man is similar to the Holy Trinity: when one loves, one really is."

God is good, God is love... But what happened to God at Auschwitz, asks Jacek Żakowski. Indeed. How does one square the existence of God in the face of mass extermination of human beings by other human beings? Individual human tragedies are somehow more explicable theologically than a the industrial-scale murder of millions. Why? That the survivors can learn? At the expense of so many innocent, good, lives? The holocaust, which happened right here, within the span on one human lifetime, is said by Fr. Tischner to have contributed to the rise of atheism, "the philosophy - or even the theology - of the death of God. We were told that God has died, and that only the game remained."

I must say, for me personally, the reality of the Holocaust is a very real reason to lose faith in a religious God - one that promises rewards and threatens punishment for one's behaviour in this life. What possible behaviour could justify the horrors of the ghetto and extermination camp? Fr. Tischner said in an earlier chapter, that as one approaches the end of one's life and says "and it was good" - can you imagine a Jewish woman, humiliated and starved in the Warsaw Ghetto, being forced into a gas chamber at Treblinka, suddenly aware of the fact that she was about to die in an unspeakably hideous way, saying to God 'and it was good'? Neither the Jewish God of the Old Testament nor the Christian God of the New Testament can bring comfort here.

Fr. Tischner says that before asking why is evil necessary to a loving God, we need to ask what is evil. And here, the answer lies in Revelation. "For revelation disperses the darkness. For revelation to exist, there must be evil, darkness, ignorance, delusion and lies... As revelation brings goodness, there must be evil, why, if there are no mountains without valleys. 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do.' Why did they kill? Because they did not know. So [God] must reveal [Himself] unto them, so that they would know."

Żakowski asks whether Man is born evil; an error, coded into us by Creation, which can be the source (or 'a source') of evil.  Here the lack of definite and indefinite article in Polish is a hindrance to understanding - "błąd, ktory może być źródłem zła" can mean "error that can be the source of evil" or equally "error that can be a source of evil". BIG difference. Yet none in Polish, at least not than I can gauge from context.

The remedies for this error, replies Fr. Tischner, are revelation and salvation. Revelation as the road to salvation; revelation as that which disperses darkness. "Revelation repairs a fault in our mind, in our reasoning. It repairs a fault residing in our minds - the deification of the rational. Revelation repairs this fault by subjecting the mind to the entirely irrational divine law of love."

"There is a text in the new catechism, which says [and here I copy-and-paste from the English version online available here] 'It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will. His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature'. What is this revelation? And I would ask - are there any truths in our human life to which we only have access via revelation? Because to this truth - that here stands the world - we have access through sight, through touch; something's going on around us - we know, because we hear sounds, murmurs... But are there also truths which we can only reach because someone has revealed them to us?" "Such as what we think about one another? What we feel for one another?"

"These are the fundamental truths from the human drama: love, hate. There are very many signs of love. Someone brought flowers, someone waited in the frost..."

"You know them by their deeds." Fr. Tischner replies - "From deeds alone, you never have certainty. There comes a moment, when the word must be uttered. "Well, say it" - in other words 'reveal yourself'. We can also use for the word 'revelation' the word 'confidence' [as in 'a secret, something held in confidence]. God confides. Both Testaments are the story of beautiful divine confidences."

"Couldn't the omnipotent, good God simply - and more easily - have placed into our genetic code His entire revelation, so we would carry it within us, as an animal's self-preservation instinct, like trees, which know which way to grow? So that we would know instinctive know which way to grow?" asks Żakowski. "You are thinking about salvation for humans without minds? Maybe on that basis there's salvation for trees, plants, animals," replies Fr. Tischner.

"But is not this God, who commands people to undergo a trial before receiving salvation, and makes us so weak as to give us only a slight chance of doing so, is this really your good Lord God - or is it rather a great, cruel, divine gamester? asks Żakowski.

Fr. Tischner replies: "God confides. This is because God has a heart, and that heart he passes on to someone else. You will only confide in someone if you have a heart..." [Here I'll add that humans often confide in other humans as a result in over-indulgence in alcohol] "The heart is at the basis of reason, the basis of will [an important word for me - MD]. Between God and Man there is some understanding of hearts. Pascal says that 'the mind has its reasons and the heart has its reasons that the mind does not know.' Salvation through the mind is filling up the heart with some discovered truth. Accepting God's confidences amidst all the evil of this world and filling one's heart with God's confidences.

"Such is the drama of God and Man that we have revelation and then salvation. Salvation without revelation would mean saving man without his heart, saving only his mind," says Fr. Tischner.

"Would you not prefer to receive a blank cheque for your salvation?" asks Żakowski.

"If I did, I'd not be who I am. I'll answer you - would you want to be a weeping willow? This is the whole problem," replies Fr. Tischner. "I have the conviction that is summed up in the words 'And it was good'. Revelation as confidences shared between two hearts give me the feeling that it was good, despite the awful evil of the world. The existence of evil in the world is an immense challenge, and immense provocation. It is a great provocation to God's heart, God, who confides, and in confiding - delegates."

Well, I don't know. I can see where Fr. Tischner is coming from, but I'm not totally convinced. Revelation? Yes, I do hear that unbidden Word that comforts, that offers answers, that guides. Is it a path to Salvation? Don't know. I feel it makes me a better person; dialogue - also.

We are just over a third of the way through, I have much more to read before I can offer my personal view on these Most crucial of questions for our life. However, I am glad I'm taking this trouble at this time of year to exercise the spiritual side of me too.

This time last year:
Strong late-winter sunshine

This time three years ago:
Kensington

This time four years ago:
The Economist was wrong about Poland

This time five years ago:
End of the line

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Images of God

The second part of the book is entitled Naprzeciw człowiekowi after the title of the second chapter of the catechism, in English - God comes to meet Man. Which shows just how difficult literary and indeed religious translation can be.

Fr. Tischner kicks off with a discussion of the concept of the Absolute. To him - and to Jacek Żakowski - God is the Absolute. But can there be an atheist Absolute? Indeed there can. It is Reason; Intellect. It stands within René Descartes' dictum Cogito, ergo sum.

And, as Fr. Tischner points out, the Enlightenment brought with it deism, the notion that God brought the universe into being, then stood back and let the world get on with it. But first, a quote from the new catechism, published 400 years after the Tridentine version - in the light of 400 years of scientific discoveries: "Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed Himself and given Himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, His plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us His beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit."

"These words are about a God, who is an Absolute," says Fr. Tischner. [I note in the margin that whereas the Holy Trinity has appeared several times in the book, the Holy Spirit makes its (his?) first appearance.] And God, as an Absolute, is free. God - as being free - is a contrast to the Tridentine image - God as omniscient, omnipotent, just and good. But, says Fr. Tischner replying to Żakowski's question as to the atheist Absolute, the notion of God as Reason and Intellect is also deeply rooted; he traces it back to ancient Greece and on to the Enlightenment; God being worshipped on account of His intellect.

But a free God is one that is uses his Reason. As God wills himself to act with Reason, then God will not make the world do handstands - water will not flow up hill nor dead leaves float back onto trees. God acts with Reason - and Man can act with Reason - so a dialogue may ensue. God cannot  expect unreasonable things of Man. "Such as?" asks Żakowski. "The extraordinary. God demands only ordinary, kind, living," replies Fr. Tischner. "God does not need miracles," he adds.

God created the world with sufficient reason not to have to intervene in its workings? asks Żakowski. This concept is known as Deism, an interpretation of an intelligent world. What happens, asks Fr. Tischner, when Man wishes to imitate a God of Reason? He cites Anglo-Saxon Puritanism as stemming from such an image of God - sensible, reasonable, orderly. With high, but common-sensical ethical demands. "Have a family and live respectably. Early to bed, early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy and wise. What Johnny didn't learn, John doesn't know." In today's world, Reason need not have a Godly character - it can be an absolute in a world deprived of God.

Żakowski asks whether you can believe that God does not exist, yet continue to respect rational rules. "Yes, and Man does not question them, because they come to be an Absolute," replies Fr. Tischner. "And the evil that exists in the contemporary world becomes something incomprehensible, irrational, absurd - conflicting with common sense." [Rather, as I noted in the margin, the Work of Satan. Here an aside - I've noticed in my many chats on these subjects that Poles who vote PiS are far more likely to believe in the physical existence of Satan in this world than those who vote for other parties.]

And now we get philosophical. "When you say to God, that He has to be above all rational, then you are imposing on Him limiting consequences in action; you are taking away from His omnipotence. Because you are forbidding him to make water flow uphill," says Żakowski. "But true freedom is always reasoning. If God were to eschew Reason, one would say, "God's gone mad," and of course a mad man is not a free being," replies Fr. Tischner.

"What, then, of the Biblical miracles? Water into wine, curing people? This flies in the face of such logic," argues Żakowski. "The faith of Deists or Puritans requires no miracles. It is a faith than can get by without miracles; indeed miracles disturb it," replies Fr. Tischner. "Because they discover God in the logic of the world, and not in miracles?" "Because it suggests that God does not need to improve himself."

"In the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, the one miracle that we are commanded to believe is that the prophesy of the Old Testament was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The Church believes in the Gospel and in the miracles carried out by Christ. No other miracle is not the subject of faith." [Which includes Fatima, Lourdes, etc - my note.]

"This healthy, rational, common sense sits deep within the Church and is a great religious value, it carries the simplest values of our everyday life: reliability, conscientiousness, punctuality, honesty."

"But the Cartesian Absolute, the Cartesian God is above all a God of Power. The freedom of such a God is Power. I am free if I can do something. If I can't, I'm not free," says Fr. Tischner "And such a God no longer needs to be consistent, wise, subordinated to the rules of all creation?" asks Żakowski. "In the world of such a God, there is room for miracles, mountains without valleys. An omnipotent God that can create the physics of this world - and change them whensoever He chooses. The light of the sun can bring darkness, snow can be hot." Such then is a Cartesian God [I think he's rambled off the point here - sure a Deist God would not engage in such frippery solely to demonstrate His power... but now we move forward to the real point - the nature of an atheist Absolute.

"Man, create the rules and play your life by those rules. Politics, a battle for power, democracy, the state, economics, money, entertainment, and the satisfaction that stems from it," says Fr. Tischner. Żakowski adds: "I can change this world. Change becomes a value in its own right... Man wants to prove that he can destroy his world and re-shape it anew.

And finally Fr. Tischner moves on to the Absolute contained in the new catechism, neither a Deist, atheist or Cartesian one - but a God that comes to meet Man, and says: "I love, therefore I am - Amo, ergo sum." "Has this catechism rejected the other ways of seeing the Absolute?" asks Żakowski? "We'll see," replies Fr. Tischner.

Well - some serious philosophy there. "If you accept 'A', then 'B' follows on to be true". That kind of thinking. All too heavy-duty for me. A God that works miracles? God works miracles all the time; only we can't see them or can't be bothered to look for them. My own view of God is different, but I do like the Amo, ergo sum concept - and we'll be taking a closer look at that in the next conversation.

I'm nearly one third of the way through Lent and nearly one third of the way through the book. Both to be continued until Easter Sunday.

After two weeks of Lent: no weakening on coffee, alcohol or meat; 50 sit-ups twice a day, 22 press-ups, not missed a single morning or evening session in 14 days.

This time last year:
City-centre living, Warsaw-style

This time two years ago:
Communist plaque on Zygmunt's Column

This time five years ago:
Three weeks into Lent

Monday, 25 February 2013

Late-winter commuting, northern Jeziorki

Conditions for commuting by car through Jeziorki at this time of year have been made even more unspeakable by the closure of ul. Hołubcowa (below). Work continues on the S2 Southern Warsaw Bypass (Południowa Obwodnica Warszawy), cutting the road in two, while the new viaduct that's going to carry Hołubcowa over the S2 is probably another two years from completion (given the pace at which the Poloneza viaduct was finished).


This means that with the closure of ul. Oberka - for good - the only way to get from Jeziorki to Grabów and Wyczółki beyond other than joining the slow-moving traffic on ul. Puławska - is ul. Poloneza. I've written about this before; a super-duper four-lane viaduct with crash barriers and floodlighting connected to the roads of Jeziorki by 260 metres of mud, below. This, apparently, would cost 500,000 złotys to asphalt, but the city authorities would rather spend six times that sum on a New Year's Eve bash on Pl. Konstytucji.


Meanwhile, people have to go this way to work. The short film below shows just what it's like to take a small car over this stretch of road. The alternative to this is a four-kilometre detour along a road that's already choked to the point of near immobility.


(Thanks to my driver, Marzena, for risking her car's suspension on this 'road'!)

This time four years ago:
Lent and Recession - a nice parallel

This time five years ago:
Early intimations of spring (no such luck this year!)

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cat among the magpies

Our young cat, Liluś, brought by Moni from Łódź last spring, is keen to get out into the wilds to hone her hunting skills. She will take any opportunity to climb trees, and twice has had to be rescued from one, having climbed too high. Today a cherry tree full of magpies proved a fertile hunting ground for young Liluś. The four magpies (count 'em!) were completely relaxed about having this predator sharing their tree with them. They laughed, cackled and provoked the cat, which could stand no more teasing -


- so up the trunk of the tree she climbed (below left). The magpies found this hugely enjoyable, and continued cackling (especially the one on the top left). Liluś continued her ascent - the birds felt not remotely threatened. They flew around a bit, then settled back where they had come from. Crestfallen, Liluś slinked down the tree and jumped off the fence into the wet snow beneath.


Reminded me of a favourite BBC cartoon show, Roobarb and Custard...

Photos taken from bedroom window with Nikkor 80-400mm lens, now permanently attached to my Nikon D80, which celebrates its sixth birthday today.

This time two years ago:
My Nikon D80 four years on

This time four years ago:
Nikon D80 two years on

This time five years ago:
Nikon D80 one year on

Tradition and faith

On to the final conversation in the first part of Tichner czyta Katechizm, which looks at tradition. Faith, says Fr. Tischner, extends in time; our faith is the faith of a small child, of a young person, of a mature adult. [It is worth noting here that scarcely a single molecule in your body has been around inside of you for longer than nine years.] And then there is historical faith. The faith of Abraham, of the Apostles, of our forefathers. This has been faith that has sought understanding - fides quaerens intellectum - "and since one is still seeking, it means that it is not to be found?" asks Żakowski. "Is time the enemy of faith or rather its ally," askes Fr. Tischner. "What is time? Historical time, time of tradition. In our world, this is the basic variable, according to which which everything around us changes.Time relativises. Our world, the world of human values, our understanding, our feeling of those values. What was once important, today is less so."

The question concerns the function of time in the process of faith that seeks understanding. "Is time a force that takes us further from the sources, or maybe it allows us to see those sources better, truer? What should we do with time? How should we live it, experience it? How can we enter enter tradition reaching far outside our times?"

Żakowski raises a good point, the clash of two narratives - one, historiosophical optimism, which holds that the world is getting better, that we are getting more intelligent, that we are getting to understand one another better, we're coping better - and a pessimistic one, that says everything's going to the dogs. He asks Fr. Tischner: "Do you have any guarantee that human understanding of faith is improving over time? That historically speaking, we are rising ever higher?"

Here we have the clash between what in Britain is called the Whig View of History (that things are constantly getting better  - maybe two steps forward, one step back - but intrinsically, there's progress) and Toryism - that doubts human nature and distrusts progress.

And how does the Church interpret human - progress? Indeed - has the march of time resulted in progress - other than technological?

Żakowski questions the notion of capax Dei as being convenient for today's individualised world, so different from the feudal, hierarchical or authoritarian world of the Tridentine catechism. Fr. Tischner replies that God created time so that we could mature in time. "And this justifies variable interpretations?" asks Żakowski. "Not only does it justify - it prescribes interpretation of the Scriptures as a response to the ills of the world," replies Fr. Tischner. "In other words," ripostes Żakowski, "constant reinterpretation. And when you are continually reinterpreting, re-reading the signs, the revelations, sooner or later, you must face the question: 'is this the same faith'? If the current catechism had appeared in say, 1900, wouldn't it have been placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum?"

In other words, Żakowski asks - "the scale of the Copernican revolution that occurred between the Tridentine and the current catechism is such that questions must arise as to the identity of this faith."

Fr. Tischner replies that the identity of the faith resides in its dogmas, and then poses the question - what is a dogma. "If we accept a relativistic version of history - then dogma is not possible. Each generation believes in its own way, each interprets the Scriptures in its own way. Could these dogmas not be converted into timeless mathematical formulae, as constant as Euclid's theorems are today, and every day since he formulated them?"

There is one core dogma, at the nucleus of faith, one dogma from which all other arise. There is only one light, which radiates in many ways. "This is love! The dogma of dogmas states that God is love," exclaims Fr. Tischner.

There are many here among us who think that God is indifferent to their sufferings, "fathers who've lost sons, people who are on their own cross. And the sense of our Copernican revolution is to show - as far as is possible - that God is love... When man suffers, God suffers with him. God does not wash His hands of human suffering... Man is finished; finite; God is infinite and by nature does not suffer. But if someone infinite loves infinitely, it means He suffers along with us, whom He loves," claims Fr. Tischner (Again, I would point out here the scale of what is meant by infinite. The observable universe is currently believed to contain between ten sextillion and one septillion - a trillion trillion - stars. Even if intelligent life is exceedingly rare, current best estimates are six billion planets similar to ours on which life has evolved.)

The image of God is ceaselessly changing, changing, suggests Fr. Tischner, along with the changes of the suffering of a given generation. (This, rather than the ever-furthering frontiers of science.)

How then is the Church today to judge St Augustine? St Thomas of Aquinas? Martin Luther? Giordano Bruno - burnt at the stake for his heretical views, including that the sun was one of many stars around which planets revolve? Archbishop Lefebvre - the conservative opponent of the Second Vatican Council? asks Żakowski.

Some came too early with their views; Lefebvre clung on obstinately to the nostrums of a bygone age. Fr. Tischner quotes German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin: "An intelligent God does not tolerate premature inflorescence". When you propound a beautiful truth to an immature person, you waste it. First, he must grow up to it, says Fr. Tischner.

We must read the signs of the times? asks Żakowski. "Look attentively at what's happening upon the sea of human deeds, and read the sign of the times. Christ came into the world in His time, and we also come into the world for certain people," replies Fr. Tischner

"How then, can we cope with that which has occurred in our past, without striking out earlier achievements for our future? This is the entire mystery of the tradition and the presence of the Church in the current catechism," says Fr. Tischner. "But how can we be certain that the authors of the catechism that they have read the signs of the times correctly?" asks Żakowski.

"They have that certainty from their faith, which seeks understanding. And they have that certainty in the measure of today's times," replies Fr. Tischner. "The Church can err, but today it will not condemn anyone to death. The Church has forsaken the use of violence in the defence of our faith... There is no other way for man than to look into the past, know the past, read that which has been revealed, have hope for tomorrow, and maintain a dialogue with this world that surrounds us, listening not only to our followers, but also to our opponents," he concludes.

A powerful argument against fundamentalism, I think. But the tides of time move quicker than an organisation so tied to tradition like the Catholic Church. The signs of the times, the drama of our day - as opposed to what Europe endured in the last century - forms a different reality. The ease of access to information (during the course of writing this post, I've learnt much from the various links to Wikipedia articles) will undoubtedly change the world view of those who seek. We move on now to Part II of Tischner czyta Katechizm, Naprzeciw człowiekowi (which Google Translate less than helpfully gives as 'front man'!)


This time last year:
Three days into Lent

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Dialogue and freedom

The sixth conversation between Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski goes deeper into the concept of dialogue. It begins with Żakowski reading a quote from the current post-Vatican Council catechism:

"Man must freely respond to God with faith. No one should be coerced against his will to embrace the faith." This statement, I note, is quite at odds with the activities of the Teutonic Knights, the Crusaders, the Conquistadors or the Spanish Inquisition; we must accept that ecclesia semper reformanda. This is official thinking of the Catholic Church, and the Radio Maryja crowd had best accept that, before sending death threats to the Polish TV regulator.

"God chooses man, turns to him, and then it is the voluntary choice of man that becomes the mark of faith," comments Fr. Tischner, "...or lack of faith," counters Żakowski.

"Where there are two beings of free will, there is no permanent bridge between them. Every bridge can be destroyed. Because they are both free, one cannot dominate over the other. One can only attempt to influence the other by speaking. The importance of speech is greater where freedom is experienced as the only tie between two free individuals," says Fr. Tischner. "In the beginning was the Word. Not only at the beginning of the world, but at the beginning of any relationship between any free beings."

But are all people equally able to engage in dialogue with God?

"To each according to his capacitas, to that which he as capable of understand," says Fr. Tischner. "Through the catechism, through the Bible..." Through - plants?" asks Żakowski. "No! There must be speech - talk - otherwise instead of God, we'd have the cosmos," replies Fr. Tischner.

[Time for a reflection here. Fr. Tischner is separating God from the Cosmos - I rather see the Cosmos - and all the creations therein - as manifestations of the existence of God. Do plants speak to me? Probably not. But their existence - especially in the wild - do remind me of the existence of a higher Being.]

"Does this have to be the Good News?" asks Żakowski. "Yes," replies Fr. Tischner." And here he begins to talk about the specific nature of the language, which two free beings use in relation to the Good News. It is the language of Symbol. "The language of religion is that of symbolism, to speak of that which is supernatural. We cannot speak of supernatural things using literal language, as we have not seen them. And so, as poets, we use symbolic language, so that words having physical designations could transport us to the world of the invisible."

It is not about description, only about evoking an idea in our imagination. "Imagination which can transport our thoughts beyond experience. Symbol, the speech of symbols, is the speech of extended language." Fr. Tischner takes a look at what is meant in religious language by 'Adam'.

The original man, the ur-father, the prototype of Man. And Eve, the ur-mother. "The drama of Adam and Eve is the drama of every human being. And when we speak of "God the Father", then suddenly the word 'father' becomes expanded by a new dimension - the dimension of infinity. It means then, that God is like a human, similar to a father - but at the same time infinitely different".

So - what does the Holy Trinity symbolise? Mystery? Żakowski asks Fr. Tischner the question, who backs off, to be asked it again. And again Fr. Tischner digresses rather than address the Trinity. Instead, he considers the metaphor of the Church as a body, indeed, the body of Christ. He sees metaphors working both ways. Presenting the Church as as mystical body means spiritualising our human body. "Making spiritual that which is physical".

"The speech, the language of religion is 'the language of life', whether in the catechism or in the Sunday sermon - there is the language of life, there is the Good News. I'd say this: the language of religion differs from every other in that there is always in it some especially good news," he says.

Returning to the St John of the Cross's metaphor of our life being a journey up a mountain, it is the word that gives us strength in our eternal wanderings. "You reach a certain level, and the word says to you: 'Go further, go higher, I am waiting for you.' So you go higher. And every step is a step into  darkness. Because you don't even know whether you will have solid ground beneath you . You don't know what lies ahead, but you go, because you hear the word: 'Come, come to me'. St John of the Cross says that among the words heard on the journey are specific words. He calls them substantial words. These are words that don't describe reality, but create it... For example, as you proceed, higher and higher, your anxiety mounts; what will be, when you have gone so far - you hear the words 'Be calm, be at peace'. Then - says St John of the Cross - tranquillity overcomes your aching soul. Or - you are walking in darkness, you are afraid, unease, and you hear 'love me'. Love can overcome your soul. This is the core of religious language. Speech that edifies the person who's down. Edifying language is that which becomes the body within your soul."

Żakowski asks how all this fits into that revolution that lies at the heart of the difference between the Tridentine and the current catechism. "The revolution depends on the fact that the Tridentine catechism was afraid of those words."

In the Tridentine scheme of things, access to the edifying words of the Holy Scriptures, was through the Church, that read the Scriptures and interpreted them to the faithful. It was the Reformation that made the Holy Scriptures compulsory reading - without the intermediation of an institution.

"As 'with your mind you'll not understand that which is innate', then don't bother trying, because you'll only understand it foolishly?" asks Żakowski.

"That's how it was during the Tridentine era. The Vatican catechism opens us all to the very language of the Word. You cannot read the new catechism without reading the Bible. Because the key is in the Holy Scriptures, and the catechism is there only to help us understand them. Which is why on every page, there are quotes from the Bible," replies Fr. Tischner. [I'm left pondering the doctrine of Papal Infallibility: surely Popes Paul III, Julius III and Pius IV couldn't have been wrong?]

"In all my meetings with people who doubt, who seek, who do not believe, I have come across those who have not experienced the word of being chosen. It is extremely difficult to convert a person if that person has not encountered the Living Word, coming from God, having never read a fragment of the Gospel". Here, I'm forced to say that I have read more than a fragment, and have my doubts that it represents The Word of God pure and simple. No doubt the Gospels  were written by men experiencing some form of spiritual transformation through having had contact with the person of Jesus; but subsequent editing has left a text that has political and social messages as well as purely divine ones therein.

Żakowski asks Fr. Tischner whether the very beautiful idea of faith in the direct contact of man with God is not terribly risky. Is the explanation of faith simple - or complicated? "With a good guide, it is simple." "If the revolution in the catechism means that man's contact with the Scriptures no longer require the filter of the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church), and that one should read them for oneself... then the Church can only attempt to help you understand that which you have read," says Żakowski.

"The road to simplicity," replies Fr. Tischner. "We humans have a constant temptation to complicate things which by their nature are entirely straightforward." "so you claim the Holy Scriptures are straightforward?" asks Żakowski. "The Scriptures are rather sanctum than sacrum - holy rather than sacred. And sanctum is the expression of good; of great metaphysical good that sits at the very foundation of all being. That is why immersion into the Scriptures is a great school of good, a school of being good," replies Fr. Tischner.

"When God made the world, and made man, he said "And it was good" - then - despite everything - was He right?" asks Żakowski.

Fr. Tischner replies: "Yes. For five days, He made no errors, and neither on the sixth day did He make errors. In our understanding of the human drama, and of our own personal drama, look within, you see what you have experienced, what you have suffered, how much you've lost, you see this all, what you've won, and suddenly - maybe towards the end of your life - you are enlightened by the awareness that 'it was good'. Then you reach the core of our faith, to the core of the catechism. You repeat the words of God, saying 'it was good'. Maybe that's why we are on this world, so that at the end we can repeat those most beautiful words that God said on the day of our creation: 'It was good'. And let it stay that way."

Well, I think this conversation wandered a long way from the title, Dialog, but the ending is positive and optimistic. How does God speak to us? A good question.

This time two years ago:
On the road to Węgrów

This time three years ago:
One week into Lent

This time four years ago:
In the stillness of a winter forest

This time five years ago:
Over the fence

Friday, 22 February 2013

Why are all the good historians British?


After work I popped by Gazeta Café for a meeting with two eminent British historians, both of whom are having their latest books about the Second World War launched in Polish translation. Anthony Beevor (left) and Norman Davies (right).[Thanks to Paddy for the tip-off!]

The event was staged as a question-and-answer session, with both men offering their interpretation of the same historical point. Nothing greatly staggering nor novel in either's answers, until a question came from the audience. "To what do you attribute the success of British historiography? Why are the works of British historians so readily translated into other languages, compared to those of, say, French, German or Russian historians?

A very good question. Why indeed? Anthony Beevor replied that he considers history to be "a branch of literature... From Gibbon's Fall of the Roman Empire, there has been a tradition of narrative," he said; the telling of the story is crucial. "European historians are more analytical then British professors, who write in an easy-to-follow manner. History is not science; it cannot be analysed in a laboratory; it cannot be objective."

Norman Davies concurred. "Anthony and I were brought up in the same tradition - I went to the same college as Edward Gibbon (Magdalen College, Oxford). There is no conflict between history as knowledge and literature. At Oxford we were taught two things: one - you have to know your subject, and two - you have to be able to convey that knowledge. If you know your stuff, but can't tell it - it's useless. If you can talk well but know little - też beznadziejnie!" (At this point I should add that Norman Davies did the entire event in Polish.)

This is so crucial! It applies not only to historians but also to lawyers and indeed to any group of specialists who have to communicate to a broader public. Having taught Polish lawyers to speak English for many years, I can see that Polish universities do not appreciate the importance of teaching their students how to make their point, how to write clearly.

A propos of which, Student SGH points out that yesterday was International Mother Language Day, and  that if anything threatens the Polish language, its bureaucratic gobbledegook. In the link he sent me, there's a quote from the Mazowsze province governor, Jacek Kozłowski "Why say 'Uzewnętrznienie decyzji w stosunku do strony stwarza nową sytuacje procesową', when you can equally well say 'Dopiero po otrzymaniu decyzji, może się Pan od niej odwołać'? (apologies to my non-Polish speaking readers!)

This time last year:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This two years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time four years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time five years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Of taxis, deflation, crisis and strikes

In Wroclaw* on Monday, I noticed that the taxis there were more expensive than in Warsaw. They do not prominently display the fare per kilometre in the rear passenger door as they have to in Warsaw. Furthermore, from what I can see online, there's a maximum tariff set by the city authorities, and that's the fare that all taxi firms charge - namely 3zł (60p) a kilometre. Taxis in Wrocław compete therefore on service.

Here in Warsaw, there's a free market. Good for the passenger, economic hardship for many taxi drivers - but - it's a free market.

To see how it works, approach a busy taxi rank, like the one at Metro Wilanowska, my regular transport hub (below). There's a long queue of taxis which can reach 150m in length during rush hours, with up to 20 taxis waiting to take you away. It's a free market - you can choose. Prices are displayed. They range from 3.00zł (the guy in the white PT Cruiser that's always standing at the head of the queue - people ostentatiously ignore him and his prices) to 1.60zł (the elderly guy in the green Corolla). If you phone for a taxi (EkoTaxi or Bayer, for example) rather than get one from a rank, you can get lower rates (1.40zł/1.50zł respectively).


For an 8km journey, after 22:00 when the night tariff cuts in, the difference becomes significant. So at Wilanowska, I'm looking for taxis displaying a fare that's 2.00zł or lower. The guy charging 3.00zł has his pride. He looks after his PT Cruiser. It has low mileage. And it will stay that way.

I often wonder about the economics of running a taxi. The more you drive, the more you pay in fuel and repairs. But you can't get much work if you're charging high prices. It should require the finesse of an economics graduate to model the optimal tariff - one that attracts custom yet covers costs. Talking to a Bayer driver, he's happy that he spends little time standing, yet makes only a handful of grosze per kilometre (many Bayer drivers own seven-seater people carriers which exempts them from some taxi regulations, these are expensive to run).

The Warsaw taxi driver has been forced by the market to take a cut in living standards. I'm minded of the Łódź security guard on 5.30zł an hour. Inflation is fizzling out. At the lower end of the labour market, wages are being forced down, people are losing their jobs. Unemployment - though still way off the pre-EU accession rates (23% in February 2003) - is creeping up and people are feeling it.

A few weeks back I was at a meeting at which a railway trade unionist spoke about sentiment among his workers, aggrieved at the proposed cut in travel concessions for railway workers' families, would go out on strike and the whole nation will follow.

Twaddle. As finance minister Jacek Rostowski rightly pointed out, strikes in Poland - the big ones, on a national, historical, scale, have always been prompted by inflation, not by unemployment. Strikes today are limited to state-owned industrial workers striking to protect their privileges (usually at the cost of the unemployed).

Times are getting tougher across Europe. The Spanish and Greeks, who've been overpaying themselves for years within the eurozone, must face swingeing pay cuts, as their economies don't have the safety valve of currency depreciation. Here in Poland, which does have such a safety valve, the market is pushing wages in the same direction. Talking to recruiters, I hear that in senior managerial positions, salaries being offered are lower today than back in 2008, so it's happening across the board.

Although Poland's economy is not in recession (and it is unlikely to stop growing), the economy is growing weakly, and you can feel that. For consumers with money still in their pockets, living will become cheaper. For those without, it will become harder. Warsaw's free-market taxis are a bellwether, a portent, a lead indicator.

* Ilona from our Wrocław office claims that Wrocław is generally dearer than Warsaw - property prices, shopping, restaurants. Less regulation and more competition drives prices down.

This time last year:
Lent starts again

This time two years ago:
Art Quiz

This time three years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

This time four years ago:
The beauty of winter
[some of my finest winter photos]

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Strange icicles outside the window


A Most unusual sight met my eyes this morning looking out of an upstairs window. Wet snow had slid down the roof overnight, like a lava flow or glacier, refreezing as it went, being blown in towards the walls by a south-easterly wind. The icicles that had originally been pointing down were now bent at a 45-degree angle, while more recently formed icicles dangle perpendicularly. I wonder how this will look tomorrow morning?

(Answer - below!)


All day today and indeed yesterday the temperature has been around zero degrees C. Snow has been falling, melting, refreezing. Unusual - neither thaw, nor proper winter.

Fides quaerens intellectum

The fifth conversation between Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski is pivotal in understanding the rift that is currently occurring in the Catholic church in Poland. Remember, this best-selling book was published nearly 17 years ago, before Radio Maryja became the influence is has come to be.

Fr. Tischner refers to the tensions that lay behind the schism within Christianity, the reformation and counter-reformation, as boiling down to tensions between objectivism - tidying up and categorising faith - and the tendency toward subjectivism - freedom, individuality and the singular unrepeatablity of an individual's experience of God. The Tridentine catechism, he explains, was about order rather than freedom, a scholastic method of objectivising religion.

The new catechism is an attempt as finding a synthesis (note - synthesis, not balance) between objectivism and subjectivism. "It turns out that these values are not contradictory, and can be linked to one another, as the only method of religious thinking," states Fr. Tischner. In the margin, I've written in pencil: "No?" Is this really so? We continue...

St Augustine's dictum Fides quaerens intellectum ('faith seeks understanding') is key. Fr. Tischner opines that St Augustine was one of the main inspirations of the reformation. "That is why the Tridentine catechism is very careful of accepting Augustinian ideas. Quite different than the current Vatican catechism.

Żakowski now engages Fr. Tischner in a theological argument into the nature of God. God, who fashioned Man in His own image, God, unlimited, omnipotent. Fr. Tischner replies that in creating Man, God limited His own freedom, and as He is omnipotent, He can do everything, including limiting His own freedom when creating free Man. (In pencil I have written here 'debatable') This, says Fr. Tischner, is a "very beautiful, fascinating metaphor - the Word became flesh - and came to Man... Because Man was wild. Not evil, not furious - but wild. And God, looking at this wild man, has this problem - how to accustom Man with Himself."

I return here to my cosmological question, raised earlier - we live on a planet orbiting one star of 200 billion in our galaxy, one of 200 billion galaxies. God made us in God's image? Is there not a defining common factor among all life in our universe? Consciousness? Awareness? God - aware of all. Man (and other sentient beings on other worlds) aware of far, far less - but however - aware.

After an intellectually sterile cul-de-sac of a discussion about the nature of the Holy Trinity follows, ('convoluted stuff' I jotted) and then we approach the crux of this chapter. Hermeneutics - the theory of understanding, theory of knowledge. "To accustom oneself with another [oswoić not int the sense here of 'to tame'], one should ask of them - 'what is it that you seek, what are your hopes, towards what are you striving, what values do hold dear?' - in other words hermeneutics that lead upwards." This process - measuring another person by high ideals rather than - in the world of the old catechism - by measuring his deviations from a strictly defined set of regulations.

"According to the new catechism, when you meet a heretic, you should firstly ask him the question - what do you, man, want? What are you seeking? What kind of a world are you dreaming of? Do you wish to improve the world?" says Fr. Tischner. In other words, a seeker recognising a fellow seeker... Idealistic words, spoken five years before jihadists, dreaming of an improved world, blew up the Twin Towers.

Should we be bothering to look for answers to questions that we know we can't answer, asks Żakowski. "There is much we cannot possibly understand - so why bother seeking? Surely this is propagating the idea of fruitless toil. Is is this the challenge of the new catechism?" he asks.

A tough question, but a fair one. Fr. Tischner replies that he that is curious, he that seeks the answer to the mystery, should not seek alone. Rather, he should seek - together with others. We return to Fr. Tischner's continuing call for dialogue - or rather dialogues. "The new catechism aims to combine homo religiosus with homo sapiens. Because homo sapiens is the one who looks, who seeks..." he says.

"He asks... he is continually asking... quaerens intellectum... If you, as a human, do not release from within yourself the living homo sapiens, you will never be a proper homo religiosus.

And here, Fr. Tischner launches a fierce attack on those who claim they believe, yet do not think.

"Religion is for the intelligent/wise/clever/sensible (religia jest dla mądrych). And if some one is stupid/foolish/silly (głupi), and wants to be stupid, he should not use religion to hide his stupidity. Because religion is fides which quaerens intellectum. Phew! Strong stuff. I wonder how that would play to the Radio Maryja faithful, who expect to be told what to believe, and unquestioningly do so, and attack those who deviate or question as heretics.

Żakowski asks provocatively: "So - with a sharp sword you cut off the stupid masses from the road to God?"

Fr. Tischner: "God has the the right not to want among His adherents stupid people. By 'stupid' I mean those who have chosen stupidity for themselves, who have chosen to limit themselves, who want fides without the quaerens intellectum." "Believe, feel, and strive to understand", summarises Żakowski.

This seems to be the line in the sand between the two wings of the Catholic church in Poland. A combative, assertive, robust statement, calling on the faithful to think and question and seek.

This time two years ago:
To the Devil with it all! - short story, Part II

This time three years ago:
Building the bypass as the snows melt

The time four years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Lent - Week One completed

It's been a good start to Lent. A fresh spiritual dimension this year, thanks to Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski's lively discussion of the catechism. Plenty of new insights delivered with each chapter; ideas to shake up dusty old nostrums and offer a fresh perspective. My mind is still open to the book's arguments; 21 chapters left to sway me.

Dieting is easier this year, as I've neither given up dairy products (principally cheese and natural yoghurt remain on the menu) nor tea. By around 11am, I feel a headache coming on due to lack of caffeine; a mug of tea does the trick. We forget that tea is also a source of caffeine, though not as rich as coffee (which I've not drunk now since mid-January).

No alcohol - that's easy, no meat (miss those steaks!); salt snacks went in the bin ages back; fast food limited to Fillet O'Fish from the Scottish Restaurant (no fries, no sugary drinks). Plenty of fruit and veg, stir-fry mixed sprouts with cous-cous, salmon, tuna, prawns and mackerel, brown bread, cholesterol-reducing spread in place of butter. One thing I said I would put on the diet - bitter 85% cocoa-solids chocolate (good for the brain) - I've been skipping. A double portion (40g) today.

And exercise is going well. I didn't overdo the start (10 press-ups, 15 sit-ups), so after a week I'm up to 17 press-ups and 30 sit-ups, without any aching muscles. No rush, take it easy, I'll add on each day what extra I can do without pushing myself too hard, there's still five and half weeks to go. And I'm feeling very good on all of this.

No scales or tape-measure - a week's too early to spot any decrease in circumference around the waist.

I've noticed my blog traffic's declining - Lent's not the Most wildly interesting subject to read about;  I shall return to more popular matter after Easter, coping with diminishing popularity must also be a Lenten form of self-denial!

This time last year:
A study in symmetry: Kabaty Metro station

This time two years ago:
To the Devil with it all - a short story

This time three years ago:
Waiting for the meltdown

This time five years ago:
Flat tyre

Wrocław airport's new terminal

As a matter of record - today I flew from Wrocław to Warsaw, travelling through the new terminal building that's less than a year old, completed in (good) time for last year's football championships (now a receding memory, eh?). Like Gdańsk's new airport, the new terminal is bright, spacious, modern and functional.

I'm puzzled by the old terminal building; there's no notification as to whether it's functioning or not, and if it is, what's flying from there. I guess it's closed, but can find no confirmation online.

Wrocław Airport: Terminal 2 exterior, night

Wrocław Airport: Terminal 2 interior
Wrocław Airport: Terminal 2 interior, from Level 2

Wrocław Airport: Terminal 2 from Level 1 looking up

Monday, 18 February 2013

All I know, is that which I know not

We come to the fourth conversation between Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski. We return to Abraham in the desert, so that Fr. Tischner can explain what the new catechism means by 'negative theology' - knowing what we know God is not. He asks Żakowski to read from St Thomas of Aquinas: "Speaking of God, we cannot define, who He is, but only who He is not, and what place is taken by other entities in relation to Him".

Abraham, we will remember, heard God tell him, that if he really loves Him, he will sacrifice his son unto Him. And now - did God really tell Abraham to kill his son? Or did Abraham think that's what God said? Abraham in the wilderness experienced (so the Bible tells us) being chosen by God - being spoken to by God. He hears God speaking - but - says Fr. Tischner - misinterprets God's words. "Sacrifice your son!" That's what Abraham heard. But what God said - we don't know.

The result - a will do commit a great moral wrong to prove his love for God. There is an unspoken allusion here (five years before 9/11) about the temptation to indulge in religious fundamentalism - to set a higher value on religion than on human morality. The result - totalitarianism. When father informs on son, brother informs on brother. In the name of a greater good, you create a "good evil", says Żakowski. Fr. Tischner quotes Kierkegaard, that in the name of religion, one suspends morality.

This, says Fr. Tischner, is a very human drama. Justifying the greatest evil with the greatest good. Żakowski asks him whether there's an answer to this, other than scepticism. Fr. Tischner refers him to the new catechism, to the concept of negative theology. "Speaking of God, we cannot define who He is, only who He is not. Which means we can never be certain of what God is saying to us."

NOW we get to an interesting point. I DO believe in prayer, in the concept of a dialogue between myself in the silence of my soul, receiving a reply to my questions that I do consider to be from beyond my consciousness, from a higher - indeed - the highest - authority. A voice invariably kind, and wise, and optimistic and positive. Never aggressive, never judgemental. But...

"Can you never be certain, what God said to you?" asks Żakowski. Fr. Tischner replies: "You have to be very critical towards it. You have experience that there's something being said, so you are not lost; but what is being said goes through many filters of all your feelings, emotions, experiences, limitations, associations, reminiscences - through the filter of the entire mechanism of your human perception."

What then, can we do, to ascertain what God is really trying to say to us? Are we truly capax Dei? Żakowski says that when the voice of God tells us to sacrifice our son, kill a neighbour, or hit someone on the head, we should heed St. Thomas of Aquinas and bear in mind that we can never really be certain of what God has told us. Fr. Tischner says that in such cases, you should consult the advice of your brothers and sisters in faith. "Is it possible that this what God has told me?" asks Żakowski. And, continues Fr. Tischner, "through the faith of others you will hear the words of Christ, who will tell you to put your sword in its sheath. Which means when you want to bear witness, go yourself unto that altar, do not send your son or your neighbour, who may believe differently.

Because, we cannot really know what God is saying to us, the catechism says "we think that this is good," "we think this is the truth", where the old Tridentine catechism said "this is good", "this is the truth," says Fr. Tischner.

And now we get to my favourite metaphor in the book so far. Quoting the mystic St John of the Cross, 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.

The sense of what Abraham experienced is straightforward; the God of Abraham is not a jealous God. God takes away the delusion of truth, but through that brings us nearer to truth.

This time four years ago:
It's not rich countries that build roads, its roads that build rich countries

This time last year:
Snow that was doomed to melt

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Wait to spend or save lives now?

The story about the dangerous lack of pavement along ul. Karczunkowska takes a further turn. After the "40 million zloty pavement" story broke on Skyscraper City (thread moved here - from post no. 597 onward) the notion that the simple provision of pavement along Jeziorki's beleaguered main artery could cost 4 million let alone 40 million zeds, some new stuff came to light.

The city authorities were not just planning a length of pavement along the road. The 40 million project (now put on hold indefinitely, we are told) consisted of widening Karczunkowska to 16 metres (from six), putting in pavement and cycle path, and takes into account the building of a viaduct over the railway line by W-wa Jeziorki station. And probably acoustic screens and all the other bells and whistles that go along with an EU-standard road of this significance. Buying a five-metre strip on either side of the road probably represents the lion's share of the 40 million.

This puts the citizens of Jeziorki in a bind. If the authorities do lay the pavement now, and in a couple of years EU funds become available to rebuild Karczunkowska as a super-duper freeway, people will moan (and with some justification) that the money spent on laying the pavement was wasted. The pavement (which might have saved a life or two) will have to be ripped up as the road gets widened. Motorists will complain that yet again their journey times will be lengthened because the authorities couldn't do everything in one go (as happens when a road's ripped up to lay gas pipes, then ripped up again a few months later to lay water pipes).

If the authorities don't lay a pavement - the current state of affairs will continue. It's not too bad on a dry day from April to October. But at night - it's dangerous. When the snowploughs shift the snow off the asphalt onto the roadsides, there's nowhere to walk but along the asphalt. When the snow melts leaving deep mud on the roadsides, there's nowhere to walk but along the asphalt. And with drivers hurtling along the road at 80+ kmh (despite the 60 kmh limit), it's only a matter of time before there's yet another fatality here.

I'd be inclined to lay the bare minimum of pavement along the southern side of the road - so that a pedestrian can walk, feet dry, all the way from Puławska to Warsaw's boundary with Zgorzała. The land will have to be bought anyway, so there's no money wasted here; using the right materials could mean they could be re-used, re-laid as the new pavement once the budget's available for the full-Monty upgrade of Karczunkowska. It is a very scary road to walk along right now.

A lowest-possible cost provision of a pavement would increase road safety tremendously and its future removal would not be the subject of local criticism.

The Chosen Ones

The third discussion between Fr. Tischner and Jacek Żakowski centres on what it means to be chosen by God - the God who in the Old Testament asks "where art Thou?" to Adam (who hid) and to Abraham (who, in the desert, answered "here I am", before being tested by God). And Mary, who had her doubts watching her Son's crucifixion. And Jesus, who on the Cross, asked God why He had deserted Him.

Fr. Tischner then engages Żakowski on a thought experiment: "What if Jesus, who believed that he was going to die on the Cross, for the sins of all Mankind, to be resurrected as the scriptures had foretold - what if God hadn't given him the resurrection?" By holding up the central tenet of the Christian faith to question, Fr. Tischner speculates that in such a scenario - in which Jesus had lied or been tragically deluded - then God ceases to be a good God, but becomes a malicious Demiurge - an inferior, subordinate creator.

This is key. In such a circumstance (and did the Resurrection happen?) Fr. Tischner would rather suppose it would suggest the existence of a second-rate deity rather than none at all. I would concur, but would use this to question further the nature of God, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent - and God's long-term plan. But no doubt to the nature of God the conversations in the book will return.

Żakowski continues to speculate upon what an unresurrected Christ would mean for believers - a prophet, whose prophecies do not end up being fulfilled. Fr. Tischner asks whether it would be possible to show one's solidarity with a good man in the face of a malicious God. Żakowski says he could entertain such a notion. But the catechism? The catechism assumes the existence of a good God, but that human faith (in a good God) will be put to the test. "To that faith will come tests."

Żakowski then brings the conversation round to Martin Luther, who, outraged at the selling of indulgences and holy wars, rebelled against the institution of the Church, introducing schism and heresy. Was he, asks Żakowski, capax Dei? Was Luther called by God? Did Luther reply "here I am?" Fr. Tischner replies that indeed, Martin Luther, rebelling against the institution in the name of the Gospel, in the name of a good God - said "here I am".

Żakowski replies that here arises a space for dangerous subjectivism. For Martin Luther was one, and the result of his rebellion was crisis in the Church. If good faith was the reason behind Luther's actions, then can we not say that each one of us could be a Luther? What then of the institution of the church?

Fr. Tischner's answer is surprisingly liberal. Faith comes from choice, from freedom; by consciously saying to God "here I am" one is not alone; one is saying to God "here I am" as did Abraham, Luther and Christ - the Church is a collection of those with faith, those who say "here I am" to God. Faith forms the Church and in faith is the place of the Church."

Jesus is still central in Fr. Tischner's concept of faith in God; he is opening up to Protestants, but a universalism - a God that could be recognised by all forms of conscious, questioning, life across the entire Universe - requires a further leap of faith. Maybe this will be touched upon in further chapters (22 to go before Easter Sunday).

This time last year:
Fixies in the snow

This time four years ago:
Just the ticket (in praise of Warsaw's 20-minute bus/tram/metro ticket)


Saturday, 16 February 2013

Looking for The Answer

"Everybody's lookin' for answers" was a refrain in the Coen Brothers' 2000 movie O Brother Where Art Thou. We hear that there's only book that's got the answers, "from Genesee down to Revelations", according to Bible wholesaler Big Dan Teague.

The catechism states that faith is the answer given to man by God, who reveals Himself to bring light and sense to life. So Fr. Józef Tischner notes that if the answer is given to man by God - there must be a question - framed in the language of he who questions. Fr. Tischner says that too often, we frame the question in a cosmological language, seeking God in the Universe - rather than within the drama of human life. "We ask of our creator, of a reason, of a purpose". And we seek to locate that creator within an earthly frame - heaven above us, hell below. Fr. Tischner tells Jacek Żakowski that both Heaven and Hell lie between us and our fellow man. "We seek God as a participant in our personal drama," says Fr. Tischner, "people can be emissaries of heaven or of hell - this," he says, "is fundamental."

Fr. Tischner moves on the question of 'dialogue' in the catechism - the notion that God speaks to us. Dialogue occasioned by hearing the word of another. A word that may come from another person, or from one's own conscience.

"Adam, where art Thou?" asked God of the first man, who had just eaten fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Topographically, God knew. Just as when we, capax dei, capable of God, hear God's question - "where are you?" the question refers not to being lost in a forest or unknown town, but within the drama of life. A metaphysical and strong question. People, says Fr. Tischner, who do not have the awareness that they are lost, do not hear the question. And, he confirms, God is in that question.

Well here I have a question. If I seek, does that necessarily mean I'm lost? Personally, I don't think so. It is a lifelong quest for understanding that I would not place within an ontological framework of  perdition and redemption.

And when Fr. Tischner states that 'we are not part of the cosmos', I would disagree strongly. We are billion year-old carbon, even though we are sentient billion year-old carbon. Fr. Tischner refers again to Adam, hiding from God, because he knew everything. The creation myth of Adam, present in the three Abrahamic religions, carries with it a strong message: Man has fallen because he sought to acquire knowledge. The desire for knowledge, given to Adam by a satanic serpent, is the cause of man's fall from grace and banishment from a stress-free existence in the Garden of Eden. Fr. Tischner continues: "When you hear the question 'where are you', you must see that question through the eyes of the questioner". Placing one's self into the position of the other person allows for a meaningful dialogue. "And this, according to the Greeks, is how thinking is born. The main function of thinking is to change points of view, and this way we arrive at many common conclusions". He quotes Heidegger: "Asking questions is divine thought".

So a contradiction here to the message from the story of Adam: "He, who is curious, who seeks a further truth, immerses himself in mystery, as though in water, and opens his eyes, and sees what is happening there - not because he doubts, but because he is curious what else he can see there, what else constitutes truth. Sometimes it seems that this is missing in people today. And even within religion."

Question what you are told? This is indeed remarkable coming from a Catholic priest. Certainly, something quite at odds with the teaching within cults (see this Economist review of recent books about what goes on within Scientology). Fr. Tischner is being very open towards free-thinkers - dangerously so, the Radio Maryja wing of the Catholic Church in Poland would argue.

Żakowski asks: "to be moved to ask of God 'where are you', must you be chosen, touched by God? No, replies Fr. Tischner. "You must be touched by freedom! Not the experience of your own freedom, but experiencing freedom in others." "God is free and demands freedom," interjects Żakowski. "God teaches me freedom when God chooses me," replies Fr. Tischner, saying that here is a fundamental difference between the old and new catechism. "God teaches freedom, and when  we pray 'thy will be done' we are saying 'thy freedom be done', my freedom, on the measure, on the pattern, of God's freedom. These are new horizons opening up to us."

Fr. Tischner explores the relationship between faith and trust and intelligence - 'fides quaerens intellectum' in the words of St Augustine - faith (or more precisely, trust) seeks understanding. "Only when there is faith/trust does understanding come. The mind awakes, when one trusts."

Żakowski asks whether that trust should not be earned. Fr. Tischner replies that without trust, human dialogue bogs down in mutual suspicion, then attempts at finding ways to better one's adversary, and then violence. If we trust one another, we can talk, we can solve problems, we can try to understand.

To where should we look for answers? "To a faith that understands," says Fr. Tischner, concluding the second discussion.

I'm left with the feeling that this is all well and good, appealing to me - but from the point of view of a religion trying to draw a theological line in the sand - it's all a bit wishy-washy. Still, there are 23 more discussions to come - before Easter Sunday, 23 more opportunities to reconcile this apparent dissonance.

This time last year:
Fresh powder in Warsaw's parks

This time three years ago:
Another Lent starts

This time five years ago:
Okęcie dusk

Friday, 15 February 2013

Elliott Erwitt exhibition opens in Warsaw

An exhibition to see. Photographer Elliott Erwitt (85 years old, working with the legendary Magnum Photos agency since 1954) has personally selected 50 of his favourite images for display at Warsaw's Leica Gallery (ul. Mysia 3). Among the photos some of his trademark dog photos, some famous faces (Marilyn Monroe, Khrushchev and Nixon, Jackie Kennedy, Che Guevara), much humour; evocative landscapes and cityscapes from America and Europe from the late 1940s to modern times.

The exhibition's opening night drew an enormous and appreciative crowd of all ages (below), with a large showing of hipsters (some touting film cameras). If you missed it, this exhibition, Personal Best for Leica, is open to 11 March (Mon-Sat 10:00-23:00, Sun 12:00-18:00), admission free.


Below: a study in appreciation. Black and white photos in black frames with white mounts on white walls. Each photograph was absolutely flawless in its presentation - prints without any visible scratches, dust specks or blemishes. The darkroom work complements that of the photographer.


Below: Erwitt's Che Guevara comes across as a vain poseur, basking in the light of his self-image. No doubt Guevara was delighted by it.



A digression. Note the three people in the foreground; all are using mobile devices - to communicate or to photograph with. Today, we can all be Erwitts; two billion (at least) mobile phones with built-in cameras are in use around the world. What mobile-phone snappers lack in skill and lens quality, they make up for in ubiquity. Yesterday's meteorite over Chelyabinsk, for example, was caught on camera by thousands, as well as by CCTV and dashboard cameras (a very Russian phenomenon).
Below: my favourite image from the exhibition - steam train, Wyoming, 1954. Exactly my time, my place. Erwitt's photos of Wyoming and North Carolina were for me the stars of the show.


A word about Leica, host of the exhibition. My first proper camera was a Leica (an M2, before that I had a pre-war Leica IIIb). I used a Leica rangefinder as my principal camera from a quarter of a century (1982-2007). What a brand. What associations. Yet today - lost. The sense of a digital camera costing $7,000 (body only) that comes with lenses that neither autofocus nor have vibration reduction (for several thousand additional dollars) is lost on me. Only a purist, a show-off or obsessive could consider such a purchase - especially since each successive digital Leica rangefinder only shows to highlight the shortcomings of its predecessor. A Nikon D3200 does an admirable job for a twentieth of the price. (If you are a Leica fan thinking of leaving a rude comment here - do you want to buy one of my old Leicas? I have an M2, M3 and M6 I want to get rid of, with 21, 35 and two 50mm lenses...)

A final photo digression. It would be good to see vibration reduction/image stabilisation technology in use on fast (f2 and faster) prime lenses. Manufacturers have ignored this - it would give photographers a good reason to update their prime lens fleet.

This time last year:
The first heavy snow of winter

This time two year:
God's Dwelling Place - a short story

This time three years ago:
Beat this for a snowy winter!

This time four years ago:
Poland's most popular outergarments

This time five years ago:
The Frost Gods return

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Capax Dei

The first discussion between priest-philosopher Józef Tischner and journalist Jacek Żakowski concerns the core difference between the current (post-Vatican council) catechism, and the old Tridentine one. Out goes the doctrine of the Catholic Church as intermediary between God and Man. Rightly - a revolution, says Fr. Tischner. Catching up with the Protestants after 400 years, ripostes Żakowski. And a good thing too, replies Fr. Tischner - chapter 1 of the new catechism opens with the statement Capax Dei - Man is capable of God. To be capable - to be open - to be seeking - the Eternal, the Absolute, the True. Man is indeed capable. Man's consciousness does yearn for the numinous, the metaphysical and the transcendental. It is in our nature. [But are all men equally capable?]

We seek answers - not just to what will happen to us after we die - no; the questions we've been asking from childhood about life, reality, the universe, what it is to be human, a search for meaning and direction, a search - conscious or not conscious - for God.

How then should we search? The old Tridentine catechism would rather suggest that we don't search - that we merely accept the answers from God's church on earth, God's vicar and intermediary. Everything that we are expected to believe we is handed down in minute detail (the Blessed Virgin Mary's Assumption into Heaven for instance). Only this way can theological teachings, and through them social order, be preserved, reasoned medieval kings, who found Christianity a useful system for backing up their 'divine right' to rule.

But, says Fr. Tischner, things have changed. The current catechism is human-centric, rather than church-centric. So is he saying we can all find our own ways to God? (those of us of course who genuinely seek?)

Wouldn't things start to fall apart? A billion individual approaches, each one slightly different, tuned to individual needs and tastes; the church loses its authority, doctrinal dilution takes place.

Hasn't this process started already? No doubt these questions will arise in later chapters.

Lent going well so far, no craving for alcohol, coffee or meat. Let alone for confectionery, cakes, fizzy drinks, salt snacks or other bad things.

This time last year:
Who are the thickies of Europe?

This time two years ago:
Oldschool Photochallenge: Response No. 2

This time three years ago:
Oligocene water from Jeziorki

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Nor meat nor drink for 46 days

It's that time of year again. As of midnight, I'm off alcohol, coffee and meat until Easter Sunday. For the 22nd consecutive year. And lesser things - confectionery, cakes, biscuits etc - and salt snacks (which I've given up pretty much altogether anyway). This Lent, I shall still be drinking green tea (it has many health benefits), eating small daily amounts of 85% cocoa chocolate (good for the brain) and will not be giving up cheese or butter or natural yoghurt. But the steaks, the red wines and the Lavazzas will have to wait.

Back to exercises - press-ups and sit-ups - get myself in shape. Winter gets one complacent; time to toughen up, return to form. Must remember not to over do it in the first few days (like I did last year). Ten sit-ups yesterday, 15 today (twice), just to warm up. Weight - 11st 10lb (75kg). Not too bad. Girth - 39 inches (99cm) measured around the navel. Too much belly fat. Sit-ups are the only effective answer.

One way or the other, I must give thanks to God for giving me health.

And to matters spiritual - I shall be reading Tischner czyta Katechizm, Jacek Żakowski's best-selling book-length interview with Polish priest/philosopher Józef Tischner (1931-2000), written in 1996. The aim being to understand the thinking, questioning section of Polish Catholicism (generally seen as losing out to the Radio Maria crowd), to see whether it brings any meaningful (to me, anyway) insight.

I have no doubt as to the existence of God within our universe of 200 billion galaxies each of 200 billion stars. God meaning order, progress, a will to perfect. But how we understand God (as a Lord, as a King, as a Father - as male), is, I think, based on anachronistic metaphors that have failed to keep up with the advance of science. Bible-bashers offering literal interpretations of the scriptures are as wrong as Richard Dawkins categorically denying the existence of God on the basis of the current state of scientific knowledge. God is not dead, but our understanding of the nature of God has to move on from a limited, anthropocentric view.

All things to ponder upon over the next 46 days. Why? I ask myself. Tradition. A frame of reference.

"May faith not be only a value in its self, but may it help make life worthy, joyous and happy."

This time last year:
Feeling at home on the ice

This time four years ago:
Wetlands in (a milder) winter

This time five years ago:
Railway miscellany

Monday, 11 February 2013

Czachówek's wild woods in winter

My walk around the manor on Sunday was enlivened by the view of a southbound passenger train approaching W-wa Jeziorki station. On a whim, I jumped on, and bought a return ticket to Czachówek Górny, jumping-off point for a very magickal place, an alignment of ley-lines, a rare atmosphere, and at this time of year, with thick snow on the ground, a place with timeless dreamlike quality.

For 9.78 złotys there and back (two quid!) I was transported 17 kilometres south of Warsaw's borders, to the eternal winter woods, where all was quiet and still; not a breath of wind to stir the snow from the trees.

Arrival. Back in a special place

I have dreamed of such places since childhood. Now here I am.
Just gaze into the gorgeousness of it all; gaze - lose yourself in thought
Could this be the Trans-Siberian, somewhere east of Omsk?
Rows of trees between the tracks

Like a frozen cloud trapped in a thorn bush.

As a child, I always wanted to know what's around the bend

Scramble up the bank to reach a higher viewpoint

Through the trees runs another line... from here to all points of the compass

Long train running: chemicals bound for factories of the west.
Czachówek is a marvellous place to escape the daily urban landscape, and at this time of year it offers scenes from your dreams.

This time last year:
Vistula freezes over downstream of Warsaw

This time last year:
Twilight of the Ikars

This time two year ago:
Polish TV adverts for parapharmaceuticals

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki wetlands in winter
[light snowfall, temperature above zero]

This time four years ago:
A week into Lent