May 19, 2011

“When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” Ken Burns

This kind of explains why this master of the medium made such great documentarys on The Civil War, Jazz and Baseball.

He missed one thing though: Advertising.

Sure, it’s not always ‘beautiful’, but neither was the Civil War (which lead to the constitution) or Jazz or Baseball, but it can be a really telling artform and the Americans really invented it and it has always fascinated me, not enough to be drawn into it professionally (got close a couple of times) but I’ve always watch on in awe and, all too often, horror.

An ad makes no bones about having an emotional hook. In the US you couldn’t get stronger hooks than family and, by extension, nation and, by extension, military service and the automobile. Each has its dark side — some more obvious than others — but if you can combine those hooks in the US, you’ve got a winner. This arrived in my inbox the other day and it’s right up there:

It wouldn’t work here, but if you’ve spent any time in the States you’ll know that it’ll hook just about anyone in.

Presumably Ken Burns would be quite capable of making a great film about advertising, but that space already has a contender.

Moral credibility

May 15, 2011

For weeks now I’ve been following the saga of Bishop Morris’ offer-you-can’t-refuse ‘retirement’.

Most of the action has been on Catholica — well the ‘action’ that interests me anyhow! — but there’s been a buzz all around the web sphere especially here in Australia, but also internationally.

In fact, my attempts to discuss the matter on Sentire have lead me to the view that my interaction with that ‘place’ is too negative and a waste of time. While I imposed a similar self-exile from CathPews, in Sentire’s defence, I think its host is much more open to an alternative point of view than any other ‘orthodox’ web site I’ve come across. At some stage — often far too long in my case — you have to ‘shake the dust off your sandals’.

Back to +Morris. There’s much that has been written about the situation and circumstances of his demise. Much of it is fuelled by genuine anger at how a good man could be white-anted then shown the door and much has also been fuelled by a pre-existing hostility to ‘Rome’ in the wake of other issues, particularly the way it ‘handled’ clerical child abuse.

So, for the record, here are some more dispassionate observations from Andrew Hamilton’s Eurkea Street article Trust at stake in Toowoomba:

All governance relies on a passive trust on the part of the people if it is to function well. If trust is not given, laws will not be obeyed. When trust is withdrawn, societies stagnate because they lack any sense of the common good. They become polarised, and governments often rule by repression. The officials responsible for day to day governance become demoralised and unenthusiastic.

In Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East, apparently impregnable regimes can be brought down because trust is lacking.

Traditionally, institutions have encouraged trust by depicting their rulers as strong and benign and as guided by the best of values. But these images, and the trust they engender, have been put under pressure by the development of communication technologies and the lack of control over them. Images have become personalised.

The treatment of Bishop Bill Morris risks further blurring the image of the Catholic Church. The story told of a good man who encouraged his church, who was resolute in dealing with sexual abuse, but was removed in an untransparent process, will confirm many in their distrust of the Catholic Church. They wlll conclude that it has taken the authoritarian option.

I think this erosion of trust — or what I call moral credibility — is something that can’t be measured with surveys, but I suspect it is something that has contributed to the precipitous decline in the church in the west. Unlike people living under oppressive political regimes who eventually find the courage to ‘go out onto the streets’, Catholics just leave and that’s what they’ve been doing in droves in the last few decades.

The Pope doesn’t rule a tribe or a country where it’s members feel that their membership is fundamental to self-identify. Arguably it used to be like that, but now more than ever issues of trust are the most important way the church holds onto its membership.

In two huge issues of trust — the abuse crisis and now the church’s own internal process of justice — the best secular processes are better than the Church’s. There are no ‘streets’ to go out on to in the Catholic Church and people will just not put up with a church that says one thing and does another. According to some in the church, the secular world may be going to hell in a handbasket but it sure as hell recognises hypocrisy when it sees it. The erosion of moral credibility over many years though, has meant that very few people know or care.

Men losing babies

April 4, 2011

I guess it must be nearly 30 years ago now when we had ‘our’ first pregnancy. What a brave new world it was for us!

For me it hadn’t become that real. There was great excitement at what was to come, but no ‘outward signs’ to make it all tangible.

Then, at three months or so, there was the miscarriage.

As a young man I had no idea about its impact. I tried to be sensitive but I just could not prepare myself for how devastating it was for her. In my ignorance and inexperience, all I could do is be way, way more supportive than I thought was needed. In all that, I’m not sure that I ever experienced a very personal sense of loss.

I’m reminded of that time because I stumbled on a Life Matters story this morning: Men Losing Babies.

It very much speaks for itself and I commend it to you.

From the Heartfelt website

From the Heartfelt website featured in the article.

The ring of fire

March 12, 2011

From the preface to How God Acts by Denis Edwards*:

When a natural tragedy brings death and destruction … one of the responses is the question ‘Why is God doing this? The question is asked by both churchgoers and by those who have abandoned church practice. Sometimes it appears in the secular press, along with answer from a range of religious authorities.

All of these answers seem at best inadequate, and some of them can be extremely damaging. They intensify the pain of the sufferers, either by making them feel they are responsible for the suffering or by making them feel that God is punishing them or has in some way targeted them. Such answers can distort the Christian gospel of God. There is little of the good news of the God proclaimed by Jesus. In particular it is essential to ask whether it is appropriate to think of God, the God of Jesus, as deliberately sending disaster to some people while saving others from them. This, of course, raises a fundamental question about how we think of God acting in our world.

There is a new intensity o the problem of evil in our day, however, because of our twenty-first-century scientific worldview. We now know that the evolution of life, with all its abundance and beauty, has been accompanied by terrible costs, not only to human beings, but also to many other species, most of which are now extinct. The costs are built into the system, into the physical processes at work in the geology of our planet, such as the meeting of tectonic plates that give rise not only to mountain ranges and new habitats but also to deadly earth quakes and tsunamis … We know, as no generation has known before us, that these costs are intrinsic to the processes that give rise to life on earth in all its wonderful diversity.

I find it hard to believe in an interventionist God so praying for God to intervene in Japan and ‘help’ the devastation of life and land just doesn’t make sense to me. But I do want to express a ‘connection’ to those people, perhaps a sense of ‘praying with’ rather than ‘praying for’.

So I pray with the people of Japan as they bear the burden of the costs of being part of life and I hope they soon see its abundance and beauty.

I also offer this image** as an Australian symbol of beauty and abundance emerging from the devastation of fire.

bud emerges from burnt gum tree

* How God Acts: Creation, Redemption and Special Divine Action by Denis Edwards
** Photo is sourced from flickr.

The way to a man’s heart?

March 1, 2011

I’ve watched many TEDs over the years and they are often really exciting and creative. They are also often quite cerebral — not that there’s anything wrong with that! — this one’s a little different though.

Eschatological compassion?

February 27, 2011

In my ‘In Deepest Charity?’ post, Jules says, in part,

It’s reprehensible to give homosexuals the wrong messages. It would be lying.

I was reminded of this (a theme I’ve often come across on issues like homosexuality) when I read a review by Richard Holloway on Karen Armstrong’s ’12 Steps to a Compassionate Life’.

The first part of the review is interesting enough as it deals with the mythos and the logos, but the bit that brought Jules comment to mind (with my emphasis) was:

The second plank in her platform is that compassion is, as it were, the distilled essence of the world’s great religions. She is an immensely compassionate human being and has recently initiated a charter for compassion in order, as she puts it in the preface to this book, to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life … At a time when religions are widely assumed to be at loggerheads, it would also show that … on this we are all in agreement …”. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is both a manifesto and a self-help manual. As a manifesto, it promotes her campaign to place compassion at the heart of religion; as a manual modelled on the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, it offers exercises aimed at increasing our own compassion. It would make a brilliant guide for leaders of retreats and workshops on the compassionate life, and as a repository of digested wisdom from the world’s religions I cannot recommend it too highly.

But is she correct in suggesting that, au fond, the essence of the main religions boils down to compassion? It is probably correct where Buddhism is concerned and it is from Buddhism that her best insights and examples come. I think she is on shakier ground when she applies it to Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam are redemption religions, not wisdom religions. They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.

This radically compromises the purity of their compassion agenda. Let me offer one example to prove my point. At a meeting of primates of the Anglican communion, I was accused by one archbishop of filling Hell with homosexuals, because I was giving them permission to commit acts that would guarantee them an eternity of punishment, for no sodomite can enter Heaven. My worldly compassion for gay people, my campaign to furnish them with the same sexual rights as straight people, was actually a kind of cruelty. The price of their fleeting pleasures in this world would be an eternity of punishment in the next.

I can think of other examples from other moral spheres where an attempt to act compassionately towards certain categories of sufferers runs counter to Christianity’s doctrinal certainties. The point at issue here is whether Christianity, as it presently understands itself, is a religion whose central value is compassion. If the answer is yes, it can only be what we might describe as eschatological compassion, because the church’s doctrinal certainties and their corresponding prohibitions do not feel like compassion to those who are on their receiving end down here. They say justice delayed is justice denied. The same must be true of compassion.

This is a pretty good illustration of how two people can profess to belong to the same faith and talk past each other every bit as much as an atheist might talk past a theist. The gulf, at times, seems unbridgeable.

In deepest charity?

February 19, 2011

150 comments on one topic and 16000+ visitors since late last year is a pretty impressive set of numbers in a blog that’s Australian and focussed on things Catholic.

I’ve been following and sometimes contributing to David Schütz Sentire Cum Ecclesia for some time now. I find it challenging on many levels.

Depending on your point of view, I think I have developed a reputation for stubbornness and arrogance OR tenacity and forebearance on this and other DBs over the years.

This humble blog is a very personal place of record for me, not much more than a web diary. I haven’t built a strong following and I probably never will.

Sentire is in a different league. In the relatively small Catholic community of Australia it has a big audience especially if you further reduce that community to Catholics who are actively involved on line.

I wonder does David have more of an obligation to administer his blog in a more transparent and fair way thay I? At one level, not really. We both run our blogs and can do what we please.

But when you do have a lot of readers and, I’d suggest, some influence, have you crossed a line in the sand that says, ‘beyond this point, you’re more like the editor (and major contributor) of a publication and, out of respect for the readers who are loyal to you, you need to be fair and be seen to be fair’.

Of course the catalyst for the this navel gazing was the post that attracted the 150 comments. Entitled An Open Letter to Fr Bob Maguire, David was responding to some media stories that alleged that Fr Bob would ‘bless’ a homosexual couple outside a church.

In fairness to David, many of the strings of commentary were pretty light on and tangential and you really couldn’t object to bringing it to a conclusion. But here are the last three exchanges leading up to David ‘putting a cork in it’:

Schütz says:
February 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm
No, I am not “retracting” the letter.

1) The letter was written on the basis of the report in the Herald Sun. It makes this clear. Anyone reading the article would have been led to think, as I was, that Fr Bob was prepared to “perform a civil ceremony for a homosexual couple”.

2) Fr Bob has said “I will not and cannot do gay weddings”. But in fact the substance of the article was that he was prepared to “perform a civil ceremony” for a gay civil union – a point on which the Herald Sun article said Fr Bob “did not have a personal view”.

3) According to the article, Fr Bob said that he would be prepared to perform such a ceremony in “a private event”.

4) The article quotes him as saying the prohibition against such a ceremony being held in a church was “not personal, its institutional”.

As a response to that report, the Letter remains valid. The fact that Fr Bob has issued a short “tweet” along the lines of “I will not and cannot do gay weddings”, although it sounds categorical, does not answer objections to the article nor explain the context of what he actually told the reporter that would lead the reporter to so misunderstand his actual words. If he had told categorically told the reporter that he “will not and cannot do gay weddings”, would the reporter then have gone and written the article that he did? What did he actually say that left the reporter with the impression that he was prepared to “perform a civil ceremony for a homosexual couple” as long as it wasn’t in a Catholic Church? Although I myself do not hold the standard of journalism in our daily papers in high esteem, I cannot believe that a reporter would have completely fabricated an opinion which was diametrically opposite to anything that Fr Bob actually said to him.

So questions remain. What DID Fr Bob actually tell the reporter? Did he tell them that he couldn’t do a “wedding” but was prepared to do a “civil ceremony” (there is a distinction here, and Fr Bob’s “tweet” doesn’t address that distinction). What was all that business about “inside a church” and “private ceremony”? Where did that come from? Did the reporter just make it up? Possibly. But I would like to hear a fuller statement from Fr Bob about his actual position on this matter, and how it was possible that the Herald Sun could have gotten it so wrong. I note that the report of his “tweet” is actually in The Age and not in the Herald Sun. If the reporter really did misrepresent Fr Bob, why isn’t the Herald Sun printing a retraction? Given the serious nature of the claims of the original article, it seems to me that an equally high profile and clear statement to the contrary is still required. “Twitter” doesn’t cut it for this little black duck.

Tony says:
February 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm
So, David, your article stands because the retraction doesn’t ‘cut it’?

And the basis of your letter is newspaper articles in the context of this blog’s long term scepticism about how newspapers treat church related issues?

By your own standards, David, this seems … to put it ‘charitably’ … incongruous.

I know Fr Bob is probably not on your Christmas Card list, but doesn’t he — doesn’t anyone — deserve the benefit of the doubt given your own views on newspapers?

Schütz says:
February 18, 2011 at 7:57 pm
I think I’ve explained well enough Tony. And I also am growing tired of the unseemly ranting in some of the commentary above. So I’m putting the cork in the pot bottle on this discussion. If anyone has some new information on the subject you can email me and I will start a new discussion.

I think most of us who contribute to on-line discussions do so in the context of democratic society and would be very reluctant to censor the views of another and wouldn’t hang around long if an administrator was arbitrary in his or her exercise of ‘power’. To his credit, I have found David much more reluctant to ‘swing the axe’ than my other experiences of self-identified ‘conservative’ — or whatever term best fits — Catholics.

But to do so when you are being challenged is dangerous territory. You run the risk of being seen to putting a stop to discussion because of the challenge rather than because the discussion has got out of hand.

Ultimately I respect David’s right to run his own show — I have to, it’s a right I claim for myself — and I’ll have to leave it to others to judge if he’s got the balance right.

In the meantime, I reiterate my view that such a public ‘telling off’ of a priest in good standing based on newspaper reports that, to put it charitably, are ambiguous, doesn’t pass David’s own benchmarks of caution about media treatment of church stories and ‘deep charity’. Surely natural justice means that David, the accuser, has to prove his case and that Fr Bob, the accused, is under no obligation to disprove it?

And I guess this all goes to one of the original motivators for setting Beyond the Pews up: I’m the only person that can shut me up!

The patient art of dying

January 22, 2011

Thanks Angela on Catholica for pointing me to the following reflection. It’s a cracker. At first I thought I’d post excerpts and point you to the link but, for my record if nothing else, I’m posting the lot.

The patient art of dying
By Scott Stephens

The draft report of the Productivity Commission’s call for urgent reform of aged-care is an extraordinary and long-overdue document that, if implemented, will go a long way toward rectifying the myriad injustices and forms of institutional and economic abuse to which our elderly are subjected in the final years of their lives.

And yet it would be mistake, I believe, simply to limit our focus to the institutional and economic dimensions of aged-care, thereby keeping this problem at arm’s length. There is an equally important moral or personal dimension to the ongoing catastrophe of aged-care in Australia that demands a reform of our moral imaginations as well.

But whereas budgetary constraints and sheer political will are the impediments to the implementation of the Productivity Commission’s draft report, our impediment is that we have grown far too adept at suppressing our obligations to the elderly.

Anyone who has had any experience of working or volunteering in aged-care facilities knows the conditions in which our elderly so often live: their clothes drenched with either excrement or the property-less mush served to them as food; cavernous hallways echoing with howls and plaintive cries for assistance; under-resourced, overworked and frequently untrained staff rushing frenetically from task to task; the ambient disdain for these frail, barely existing hominoids who are not treated as though they were alive, but simply “not yet dead”.

With some noble but all too rare exceptions, this is the ubiquitous experience of residential aged care in the West. But perhaps this is the way it has always been. Perhaps there is something unnatural about the outsourcing of the care of our elderly to a disinterested third party, as if it ruptured the proper order of things.

Just take Elizabeth Jennings’s haunting poem “Old People’s Nursing Home”, written in the middle of last century (with thanks to Kim Fabricius for the reference).

The faces differentiate themselves,
The men half-women, the women half-men
And each entirely children
Except in anger, except in ignorance.
These wrinkled faces know too much, these gnarled
Hands have touched the pulse of love, have known
The family increase and birth’s harvesting.
But that was the past and this house has shut out the past
And it dare not face the future:
So it lives in a perilous present that could be cracked
By a broken cup or a laugh.
Cups are unbreakable here,
Jokes are in print too small
And the noisy future, the passionate past are dammed
Partly by deafness, partly
By doctors’ decisions and nurses’
Hiding the stuff of life and death away –
Tear-heavy handkerchiefs, the whiff of pain.

Jennings captured the unreality – and indeed, the hellish immorality – of the nursing home as a place where past and future, memory and hope, are somehow eradicated and all that is left is the nightmare of an immutable, insipid present in which not even cups can break.

But how can it be otherwise when it is one’s family and immediate community that safeguards memory and embodies hope, and while the expressed purpose of residential aged care is to separate the elderly from their families and communities?

And although it is inevitable that residents would look to the staff to function as an ersatz family, the staff are themselves ill-equipped and incapable of meeting the residents most basic material needs, much less provide the kind of emotional succour so necessary in old age.

The tragedy of residential aged care is that there is no way of simply dividing the different actors into the victims and the perpetrators, the indigent and the sadistic. Instead, the staff and the residents are bound, as it were, back-to-back in an institution that makes human affection and mutuality well-nigh impossible, and that is cruel in its very indifference.

One of the more worrying aspects of the Productivity Commission’s draft report is the worsening of two trends identified in the Commission’s 2008 report.

The first is the continued increase in the number of large residential aged care facilities – that is, those with more than 100 beds – run both by not-for-profit and by private for-profit operators, such as the Moran Health Care Group, TriCare and Macquarie Capital Alliance Group.

The effect of this expansion on smaller not-for-profit facilities – those with 40 or fewer beds – has been devastating, forcing them to contract from over 50 per cent of the total number of residential aged care facilities in 1998 to less than 30 per cent in 2010.

But the second, more disturbing trend identified by the Productivity Commission is the sharp reduction in the willingness of family members and communities to care for their elderly. As David de Vaus observed (and is cited in both reports), “The more the obligation has a direct impact on people’s lives the more reluctant they are to accept responsibility”.

It is not hard to imagine the future that awaits our elderly as these trends continue to converge: ever increasing numbers of the frail and infirm herded into an ever-decreasing number of sterile profit-based mega-facilities, and there left to vanish in anonymous isolation.

To be sure, there are family members that agonise over having to leave their loved ones in such a degrading environment but simply cannot see any other option. But for far too many Australians, the ability to go on living in our consumerist nirvana is predicated on the capacity to forget our obligations to the elderly.

And here there is a rather distressing correlation between our failure to honour our obligations to the unborn and to the elderly. In this respect, what Peter Hitchens says about the “strange popularity of abortion” applies to our haste to consign the elderly to third-party care:

“I have often thought that the strange popularity of abortion among people who ought to know better has much to do with this sensation of lost control, of being pulled down into a world of servitude, into becoming our own parents. It is not the doomed baby that the unwilling parents hate … It is the life they might have to live if the baby is born.”

And so it seems that the elderly, like unwanted pregnancies, have become a kind of ritual sacrifice that we as a society offer to the most implacable of our modern idols: what Herve Juvin has described as a kind of lived immortality sustained by unlimited choice, a freedom from obligation to others, and the delusion that we can somehow indefinitely defer our deaths.

So what might be a moral response to this intolerable and mutually demeaning situation? Alongside any reform and increase in funding for the provision of supported accommodation and community-based care, there must necessarily also be a change in what can only be described as our cultural ailment, our moral amnesia.

Perhaps a first step might be to remember that morality itself is neither bound by convenience nor enacted from a distance, but rather, as Gilbert Meilaender nicely puts it, “consists in large part in learning to deal with the unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans” – which the demands of the elderly undoubtedly are.

But there is a second facet of such a reform of our moral imaginations that is far more demanding, and requires the strength of an entire community to sustain. It is the patience to help the elderly die.

Residential aged care, paradoxically, does not let its wards die, but rather consigns them to an interminably aseptic life. Again, Elizabeth Jennings captured this with grim accuracy.

But there was no smell, not even the deathly sick
Odour of death. And then I realised:
Death is shut from this house, the language of death,
The accoutrements of dying.
A ghost would be lively. Ghosts are not allowed here
And neither is talk of birth.

We forget that the ars moriendi or the “art of dying” – of which Langland’s Piers Plowman is perhaps the best literary example – was cultivated in the mediaeval Christian tradition as an indispensable part of living well. But it was never understood as an individual virtue. It was instead a communal effort, whereby the community gathers to listen with patient gratitude to lives that have finally learned to tell the truth about themselves.

Dying, in other words, was deemed the last theatre of virtue and courage, the manifestation of the bond between the living and the dead whereby what it might mean to die well is exemplified.

One of the more surprising advocates of the Christian tradition of the ars moriendi is also one of the most notorious modern atheists. In the final volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman tells the story of Lyra and Will, two children who have made a perilous journey to the world of the dead so that Lyra may apologise to a friend she inadvertently betrayed, and for whose death she was responsible.

But once there, it becomes clear that their destiny is to destroy death itself by, quite literally, cutting a hole in the other side, thereby permitting the ghosts of the dead to disperse into the benign indifference of the universe.

When one of the harpies – whose role it is to torment the dead by spitting venomous reminders of their failed lives – complains that releasing the dead would negate the very reason for the harpies’ existence, the children’s travelling companion makes a touching suggestion:

“‘Then’, said Tialys, ‘let’s make a bargain with you. Instead of seeing only the wickedness and cruelty and greed of the ghosts that come down here, from now on you will have the right to ask every ghost to tell you the story of their lives, and they will have to tell the truth about what they’ve seen and touched and heard and loved and known in the world. Every one of these ghosts has a story; every single one that comes down in the future will have true things to tell you about the world. And you’ll have the right to hear them, and they will have to tell you.'”

If we don’t recover this patient art of dying, whereby we learn to tell the truth about ourselves, and if we don’t allow our lives to be formed by our obligations, it is not simply our elderly that will continue to suffer. We will find ourselves, and our moral imaginations, immeasurably poorer.

Something about Mary

January 20, 2011

Been involved in another, not quite as frustrating, discussion on Sentire: On the Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God.

I’m placing this post of mine here for the record as I try to clarify my own thoughts on the whole Mary thang:

It seems to me that Mary is anything but real, anything but someone we can relate to and follow as a tangible example.

At one end — Paul’s ‘signs’ — she is a god. If you don’t find that plausible go to Lourdes as I did a year or so back. For me it was a confronting experience. I was at once genuinely moved by the expression of emotion (the ‘in-love-ness’ spoken about here recently) and sense of unity in faith, and deeply concerned at the way Mary was viewed. In the central parade ground there is a statue of her, about 3 times life size, that looks like white marble until it is lit (from inside) at night like so many of the luminous minitures made in China and crassly marketed at exorbidant prices on the perimeter.

I suspect that every person there would give the theologically correct response if you suggested they were worshiping Mary as a god, but that aside, the whole site, the whole experience, is an elevation of Mary to the divine. Jesus hardly gets a look in.

At the other end — Paul’s ‘wisdom’ — is the kind of cerebral exchange that has happened here. Mary is a ‘theological question’ or a ‘dogmatic conundrum’.

Both ends rob her of her humanity — Paul’s ‘crucified’ — they detach her from something we can genuinely identify with. Her birth, her giving birth, her life after giving birth and even her death become nothing we can relate to — even if we don’t take into account modern scientific knowlege.

She is the plaster saint in the middle of the parade ground: forever young, forever beautiful (a beauty that probably has very little to do with a girl from the Middle East!) , forever passive, forever pure OR she is a disembodied intellectual exercise that doesn’t touch us like a mother touches us (let alone a wife or a friend!).

Both do her (and us) a grave disservice in my view. Isn’t it time we grew up? Isn’t it time we got real? Isn’t it time we gave her a respect and love that is akin to the woman who gave us birth?

I also add a comment a bit further down from ‘Stephen K’:

David, I woke up this morning, vaguely disquieted. I realised that not a single comment on this post has so far been contributed by a woman. I fear we’re being put to shame by a higher feminine sensibility and intelligence. I think this could be saying something very eloquently about the approach often taken – by men – and their focus in religious matters. The tendency to dissect beliefs and ideas by men often comes across like wood-for-trees blindness or laboratory-like obsessiveness, which is often unattractive. The dividing line between significant intellectual endeavour and angelic pin-dancing is often blurry and over-stepped. Perhaps a re-think of how and what is discussed would be salutary.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Love in the time of tragedy

January 13, 2011

Returning to the blogsphere this week I thought this reflection, by Brett Rutledge in The Punch, captured what many of us feel looking on to a tragedy that has no ‘answers’ (Wryday can wait a week!).

Love in the time of tragedy

Jordan Rice was 13 years old when he died. His rescue was imminent but he refused the help, insisting his would-be rescuers take his 10-year-old brother, Blake, first.

When his rescuers returned Jordan was insisting they take his mother, Donna, first – but there was no more time.

The rope to which he and Donna desperately clung snapped and they were both swept away by the raging floodwater.

They found a tree and both held on for as long as they could. But the rescuers could not reach them and Jordan could not hang on. As he was swept away for a second time Donna let go of the tree and went to save her son.

They were both lost.

There will be those who will speak admirably of Jordan and his sacrifice, and call what he did an act of courage or heroism. There will be those who will say the same of Donna or the rescuers and countless others whose names we do not yet know.

What Jordan and Donna did can be explained much more simply as an act of love.

In his own mind, Jordan probably wasn’t being brave or courageous. He probably didn’t think he was sacrificing his own life for that of his brother – and I am sure he never saw the circumstances as an opportunity to be a hero. He loved his little brother and he loved his mum and that was enough.

When we look at the pictures on our TV screens and listen to the stories of the mass destruction in Queensland, it somehow doesn’t seem real. Even for those who are experiencing it firsthand, it doesn’t seem real.

It isn’t the pictures that affect us or compel us to donate our time or money – because they are beyond our comprehension. Instead, we respond to the thing we comprehend most readily – the bonds of love between one human being and another.

Family members cry out to take a brother first… or a sister, or a mother. Friends abandon their own homes so they might help their neighbour. Bystanders wade into the torrent and reach out a hand to a stranger.

Those of us many miles away read the stories of Jordan, Donna and many others and we shed a tear and feel the pain of love lost. We donate what we can and we try to compensate for their loss by sending them our love. Love is what defines us.

It defines us no matter who we are or what we believe in. It causes us to put aside our differences. It binds us together.

As we take toll of the disaster that has engulfed the people of Queensland there will be a natural tendency to try and find reason amongst the chaos and to seek sense amongst the senselessness.

It is the human condition to try and find answers to questions of human tragedy. We will ask why it happened. Why the loss of life? Why Jordan and Donna? Why not me? We find it difficult to accept that sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes ‘bad luck’ is the closest we can get to an adequate explanation.

We will probably try to assign blame – as some already are – but that is nothing more than an expression of anger at our inability to tame the forces of nature or to anticipate its wrath and protect ourselves from it. We will be frustrated that we couldn’t have done more and despairing of our limitations. Despite all our great advances humanity remains flawed and inadequate. We don’t like being reminded.

Such feelings will give way to expressions of pride in the response of rescuers and calls for their bravery to be recognised, and no doubt such honours will be bestowed. But the greatest recognition will already have been given. Ample thanks will have been received in the form of a shaken hand, a knowing nod, a heartfelt hug or, at length, a timid smile or laugh.

They will give way to expressions of pride in our unity and compassion and the unique ability of Australians to come together in the face of adversity and help their fellow man. But it isn’t unique to Australia.

It is the most obvious example of how love transcends the deepest grief and it is evident everywhere in the world. It is, in fact, a fundamental tenet of the human condition and the only thing that provides hope for the human race. It tells us that our similarities far exceed our differences but, sadly, it takes a great tragedy for it to manifest itself widely. Even then it will be temporary .But at least we know what we are capable of.

Just as it always does, resolve will replace grief and the business of rebuilding will begin. There will be renewal and we will once again set ourselves the task of proving our infallibility and our invincibility. At some point we will again be proven wrong and another Jordan will cry out “Take my brother first…” We will once again recognise the bonds of love, shed a tear and be compelled to help in whatever way we can.

Those that have been lost will be remembered, initially by all of us, but always by those that loved them most. The ones left behind will be comforted by the kindnesses received by strangers and an outpouring of love from a world that recognises their pain as its own. Ultimately the tragedy itself will fade from our collective memory and pass in to history.

Though we may struggle to remember the names of Jordan Rice and his mother Donna in the years to come, let’s hope that we remember their example. Let’s hope we remember the example set by the rescuers or anyone else that tried to help. Let’s hope we remember that love is both a feeling and an action and is distinguished by its inability to differentiate between the two.

To love and be loved is the sum total of our existence. To say, “I love you” as we leave this world and hear or see it said in return is the greatest epitaph anyone can hope for.

Take my brother first… take my mother first…

That is enough.