Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Check out this superb site about the World of Dante, Italy's greatest poet. Teachers of the Comedy will find a range of materials intended to facilitate the teaching of the poem. They include a video demonstration, which introduces users to the chief components to the site and how to access them; a list of suggested activities; additional readings on the poem and on the artists whose work is included; links to other sites; and a survey. The activities work particularly well if teachers show students how to access the various materials, especially the information available on the combined text pages and search page. Or just read the poem, and enjoy the illustrations, maps, and music.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

God gives

Another very fine meditation appeared in Magnificat on 19 April 2012. By Sister Aemiliana Löhr, a German Benedictine nun who died in 1972, it expresses an important insight:
"God gives. This is the founding fact of our belief; on it revelation takes its resting-place. We know about God only because he gives himself; because he gives himself to us. God does not have something; he is everything. When he gives, he can only give himself, and thereby everything. In everything in which we receive, the gifts of nature or of grace, God gives himself; and only to the extent that we recognise that do we really come into possession of what he gives us. For all his gift can be taken from us, yet we remain in possession of his gift and favour when we see God as the heart of the gifts he gives."
For more on the theology of gift see my article here, or (better yet) read the article by Antonio Lopes in the collection Being Holy in the World. Go to the Ignitum Today site for an article on Gift in relation to love and knowledge.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pope on beauty

The little daily prayer-book and missal, Magnificat, the International English edition of which I have the honour (with my family) of editing, contains a lot more than the texts of the Mass of the day, and prayers for morning, evening, and night. As a sample of the daily Meditations, here is an extract from the text by Pope Benedict that was published yesterday. It is about the "Way of Beauty" and the importance of art.
"Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another – before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music – to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter – a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds – but something far greater, something that 'speaks', something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul. A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colours, and sounds. Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, opened to a beauty and a truth beyond the everyday. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward." 
The text has obvious echoes of Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists, on which David Clayton's "Way of Beauty" web-site is based. David Clayton is the illustrator of several of our catechetical colouring books for children, based on traditional styles of Christian art from icons to illuminated manuscripts. In Beauty for Truth's Sake I make a case for the objectivity of beauty, in an age where many people assume it is merely in the eyes of the beholder.

Incidentally, a longer and more developed discussion of Beauty by Pope Benedict (or rather Cardinal Ratzinger) is available on our main website under "Online reading", or go directly here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sex and marriage

How does a parent or teacher explain to a young person why the Church is against sex outside marriage – or rather, why the Church is in favour of sex exclusively inside marriage (and marriage between a man and a woman, to boot)? I don't know, but one important argument that is often left out concerns the nature of the human person, which is quite different from what is customarily supposed.

If human beings were simply living bodies ("ensouled bodies", because a soul is an animating form) like other animals, there would be no very strong reason against promiscuity. Evolutionary and social reasons would not suffice. Psychological factors might well be against it. Not everyone is inclined, like
swans or elephants, towards monogamy. Nor would it be easy to explain why two people who felt themselves to be deeply in love should not do what nature presses them to do, and express that love outside the sacrament.

Yet man is not just an ensouled body; he is also spirit. That is to say, there is in the human soul an interior dimension, an inner chamber, in which our particular likeness to God consists, and where our true freedom resides. This fact, which much of modern thought conspires to deny or obfuscate, transforms utterly our relationship to one another. We cannot, save by a denial of the most important part of our humanity, act towards each other as other animals do, or as our unspiritual nature on its own inclines us.

In human beings, acts tending to reproduction can and should be something free and personal, acts of love. So far, the romantic exponent of sex might find himself in agreement. But because the human being has this inner dimension which we call the spirit, a free and personal act necessarily involves this dimension very directly. A physical act of intimacy entails the "spiritual receiving-into-oneself" of the other person, not merely the receiving or giving of something physical or even psychological. And the acts concerned with generation are not merely pleasurable, but sacred. To the extent that they are deliberately willed, as expressions of a human love, they involve the giving and welcoming not just of the body, or a part of the body, but of the soul and the spirit.

The body is ever changing, its cells dying and being replaced. Our psychological states, thoughts, and feelings are also fluid. To locate the person, "myself", among these would be impossible, for the self is a totality that includes past, present, and future. My only access to that totality is through the spirit within, which transcends time, or at least is in contact with that which transcends time. The physical act of greatest intimacy, in which two bodies can potentially become one principle of generation and the source of a new life, should therefore be reserved for the union of one spiritual person with the other, a joining of two lives to create a new thing. Partial unions, that is unions not involving the spirit or transcending time, but involving merely the union of myself-as-I-happen-to be-now with some similar fragmentary state of the other, undermine the possibility of a lifelong commitment and communion of this kind, which the marriage vow is intended to express and make possible.

For more on sex and marriage, see HUMANUM.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Connected by Touch

Fairy tales are the fashionable thing in Hollywood and on TV. Every studio seems to be reinventing the classic tales – mostly with dire results. The successful new Tim Kring TV series Touch is much more original. Like the delightful film August Rush (which is based on the idea that people are mystically connected through music), Touch tells us that the world is built on numbers. The credit sequence alone is a work of art, showing a kaleidoscope of images drawn from the natural world and human society with diagrams of symbolic geometry superimposed. The story is built around a father (played by Keifer Sutherland) and his "autistic" son Jake, who won't speak or allow anyone to touch him. But the son has a gift with numbers. Naturally, in order to heighten the excitement, he is supposed to be "the next step in human evolution", and his gift enables him to predict the future, or "see" possible futures in the patterns of numbers he sees all
around him. Once the father realizes his son is trying to communicate with him entirely through numbers, he also learns that the boy is detecting examples of human suffering and potentialities for disaster, which by following the clues his son gives him he can begin to avert. He becomes an "invisible knight", doing good to people without their realizing it. Each episode is constructed around several plot threads involving characters in different continents whose stories interweave and are all resolved in the final moments of the episode. Quite often they involve mobile phones or the internet – maybe the first time these aspects of modernity have been fully integrated into a fairy tale.

Apart from its entertainment value, is there anything educational going on here? As I said in Beauty for Truth's Sake, the idea that the world is built of numbers, that numbers are in a sense "God's thoughts", goes back a long way (at least to Pythagoras) and very deep (the foundations of both art and science). The English writer John Michell once said, "The mathematical rules of the universe are visible to men in the form of beauty." It is this intuition, which I believe is valid, that Touch is trying to evoke (or the cynical might say is trying to exploit), along with the sense of providence, meaningful coincidence, and the natural moral order (though without explicit mention of God). I called it a fairy tale, and like all true fairy tales (according to Tolkien) the final resolution takes place through eucatastrophe. For all I know the series may flounder and lose its way later on, but it is off to a great start, and if it sends people off to look into the mysteries of the Golden Ratio or Fibonacci series, or just to explore the wonders of mathematics with writers like Clifford A. Pickover (see The Loom of God), or Michael S. Schneider (see his Constructing the Universe, that in itself is a good thing.

There is a further humane message in the series. It is that human beings are all connected, that we are all in relationship, and that we are meant to cooperate and work together, to help each other without seeking reward. Mathematics, beauty, and love are all connected. Even in prime time.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Beauty in Trust

The National Trust in Britain is worthy of much praise and thanks for the wonderful work it does preserving and caretaking some of our most beautiful and historically significant buildings, gardens, and landscapes for public use and enjoyment.  Most recently, it successfully fought the Government's ill-considered development plans, which would have threatened our heritage for very little actual gain. The new development guidelines have been extensively rewritten as a result. The Trust's director general, Dame Fiona Reynolds, is preparing to move on to run Emmanuel College, Cambridge, having presided over a growth of the charity's membership from 2.7 to over 4 million members (more than all the major political parties put together). In a recent interview she spoke of the almost "spiritual" need the Trust fulfils – a need for "access to beauty, access to nature, access to history." A good motto for a national movement!