Stephen D’Evelyn on Advent: Mary the Magnifier

This morning I represented a Union member in a bullying and harassment case. The staff member had been off on sick leave for several months due to a mental health condition triggered by far-reaching and long-running problems of behaviour by colleagues.

Repeatedly the HR officer tried to dwell on the fact that the staff member had been off sick wtih stress. Repeatedly I pointed out that the issue lay not with a medical condition with which an individual suffers but with the culture in which they were working.

These days I have been newly aware of the approach of Advent. This Sunday is Advent Sunday. Several participatnts in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in which I am taking part will be presented to the congregation in the so-called rite of acceptance–they will (or may not) accept the premise, as it were, of becoming part of the Church and the Church will accept them.

Advent for me is also a time of particular pondering on and with the Virgin Mary. I went to work with the almost-rococo flourishes of the Magnificat as sung by Nóirín Ní Riain ringing in my headphones. Something from a recent RCIA session came back to me: Mary magnifies the Lord.

For those of us wtih a visual impairment, magnifiers are tricky things. They can of course be really helpful and wonderful. Magnifying does not change what you are looking at but it enables you to see it up close. In a sense it changes the conditions in which you see what you’re looking at. Mary is like that for me. She helps me see God differently.
And for me that sort of change is at the heart of the situation I tried to help with this morning. By reminding the HR officer that the issue in question was how we looked at the workplace situation, I hope I helped magnify the matter so we could see more of it. It was not the fault of the Union member that the situation had caused her to need to go off. To see this, however, requried a kind of magnification.

As I say, magnifiers can be tricky things. My heavy reading glasses not only make typeface look big to me, but make my eyes look very big to the endless amusement of our children. For me, Mary full of God’s transforming beauty–the word rendered ‘grace’ in Greek suggests beauty as well as favour and status– magnifies the Lord that way, allowing me to see more of God and maybe to be seen more as well.

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Stephen D’Evelyn on Rediscovering Humanity through Liturgy

At the close of the US Election campaign, Donald Trump exhorted the American electorate to vote to fulfil their dreams. Again and again after the election the media have talked about how people have longed for a simpler, better time. Trump seems to have used a marketing technique of strong images that may not be connected or add up to a coherent picture to gain public attention. The quetion of how fantasy and reality relate seems to run throughout the Presidential campaign.

Yesterday evening at Mass it struck me that liturgy opens up ways of realising reality in many dimensions — length of our steps be they hobbling or striding, breadth of Christ’s arms stretched on the cross and of our arms reaching out to each other and stretching out to receive Communion, heights of heads erect and bowed and of sky, time of syllables and of breath. Our spirits are constantly reconfigured by these distances.

Reality in its fantastic variety and complexity is the obverse of fantasy projected onto reality in desperate wilful hope. It seems to me that desperate wilful hope is what is at the root of the UK Independence Party in the UK, Trump in the US, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Front National in France, and so on. Regular people certainly do have legitimate grounds for resenting globalisation. Some liberal commentators were largely dismissed for suggesting that globalisation was at the root of the disempowerment that Islamic fundamentalists have been tapping into. Maybe it’s part of that same trend, though.

We will have to see how the tension between globalisation and the widespread desire for more local identity and control plays–if not for a simply simpler, better time–plays out. It seems to me that globalization involves, at least as portrayed in purely negative views,  a loss of particular reality –local community, connection to means of production–in favour of abstract transnational financial power fuelled by consumer culture–what we might call empty images.

In experience human contact and human “being” exceeds the promises of  consumerist images. Humanity goes beyond first impressions. Disabled people show this most clearly. If we are to relate fully to each other in all of our variety we must go beyond first impressions. A Paralympic athlete may impress us because she achieves so much when seeming so impaired. But maybe the old lady in the wheelchair whose carer struggles to get her onto the bus is just as important. Her mundane life is not as attractive to our fantasy because she is not going faster, further, or higher than what we would expect. Those expectations are calibrated to what able people do.

In short, it seems to me that connecting with deep reality in liturgy–length, breadth, height, time, touch, breath, change–is an antidote to Trump, UKIP, etc which seem poised to replace globalisation’s abstract power with the abstract power of nationalism. Instead of abstract power we can rediscover the power of particularity, not as abstract categories assumed to be worthwhile but as persons, breaths, words, touches, bread broken and exceeding bread, wine poired out for each and for all. We can respond to popularism as we redisocover being people.

Stephen D’Evelyn on All Souls and Trumpism

Today is the feast of All Souls. It falls in a season when we may have haerd about the Day of the Dead and the large-scaled public celebrations in Mexico City inspired by a recent James Bond film or the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain. It also falls this year towards the end of the U.S. Presidential campaign.

All Souls is an occasion energized by love in peculiar contrast to our most common modes of order, chance and will. For at All Souls the Church explicitly celebrates those who are gone, those who have least purchase on power. Instead we enact and celebrate the community of open-ended history. Putting it that way may sound like sectarianism or tribalism. To me, All Souls offers a repost to tribalism. It affirms that what binds is not categories of power and exclusion, not chance and will, but generosity, a bigheartedness that sees beyond the present while delighting in each moment.

if there is more at work than tribalism, chance, and will in the workings of human beings and of being itself, then we may be called to behave towards each other and the origin of being in ways other than sheer will. Instead we may find an ethics, a metaphysics — a religious practice — of letting be.

This is particularly important to disability. In a world view defined by will, the strongest actors are the self-appointed actors of justice. But this justice is of course not the justice of defending the marginalized, evening things up, but of giving more to those who have more. Disability is defined by those who control culture and its norms. Disabled people therefore inevitably become marginal in systems of will.

As the US Presidential election approaches, it is all the more important to keep the problem of will in view. Mr Trump is a wheeler and dealer in will. His vision of power has widely been critiqued as lacking an understanding of pluralism. Putin’s praise is not misplaced. So as we sweep up the Halloween candy wrappers and consider the dead, let us remember the origins of being in letting be. Let us try to let there be forms of society and politics that enable love.

Stephen D’Evelyn: Beauty and Mr. Trump

Recently, a caller on a radio chat show simulcast in the UK and in the US asked didn’t Hilary Clinton supporters have better things to worry about than how Donald Trump talked about his exploits with women?

It seems to me that this is worth worrying about. The now-infamous ‘Inside Hollywood’ interview with Trump is significant not only because of its moral implications. It’s about how he sees power.

It fits a much wider trend. We — I included — have probably forgotten how Trump last November mocked a New York Times reporter’s disability:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-mocks-reporters-disability/

Trump does not just objectify difference. He sees encounters with difference as occasions for mastery. His understanding of power–including presidential authority–depends on mastery and the binary of power and powerlessness.

For me, at least, the way of encountering the unique transcendent power that cuts through this binary is through the act of liturgy–the original meaning of the word suggests public offerings–and the relations of public, private, transcendent, and positive finite that delineate the Church as community. In this mystical community a fuller kind of wellbeing and relationality –a fuller kind of personhood and otherness– should be able to emerge, one that I continue to explore as a disabled person from a foreign land.

At its best, beauty can make us more aware of our own identity, others’ distinctness, and the ways we long both for more and for some sense of satisfaction and balance. I find this in the beauty of liturgy and elsewhere. Yet beauty can easily be misappropriated. In the now-infamous ‘Inside Hollywood’ interview, Trump speaks of being irresistably attracted to beautiful women. That attraction seems all too often to be what matters and not the persons themselves in their particularity. Trump seems unable to accept others as being other.

That otherness of others as other creatres a distance and relationality. Trump instinctively seeks to reduce this tension which we experience in recognizing otherness and yet feeling kinship with the person seeming to embody beauty’s otherness. Trump wants to replace tension with his mastery, reducing a person who confronts him with the otherness of beauty to an object to be possessed, fondled, used.

Trump’s vision is one of power and ability, of making America great again and making a big noise. This action-adventure approach has the effect of foregrounding human action. We lose a broader view that includes human action and what is other to it–I might call it divine otherness. What becomes important is the clarity of single zoomed-in images. We may think of commentators’ observations on pornography, the isolated image. Trump admits he cannot control himself around beautiful women. As we lose a broader view including human action and divine otherness, in turn we lose the perspective of distance. Trump seems consistently to try to avoid distance and eliminate it.

Yet when Trump encounters his ideal of feminine beauty, he seems to experience distance, a kind of lack deep inside. The connection of beauty, desire, and lack is a topic as old as Plato not to mention Homer’s Helen of Troy. We experience beauty and we long for more, finding that we feel an emptiness inside. When Trump encounters his ideal of feminine beauty, his vision of greatness may be undermined by emptiness. He seems to feel threatened. This threat also would be appear to be a kind of self-affirmation. The feeling of threat confirms the existence of Trump’s self in an otherwise empty world. (We remember this world is walled off from ways of being other.)

I think Trump may even need to feel threatened by encounters with his definition of feminine beauty; in those moments of threat his agonistic self is engaged. Trump’s lack seems to send him back to himself as a doer rather than to peace beyond individual experiences of lack. So he may never be open to the sense of being other which we find as we are perplexed and reflect. Trump thus seems never moved beyond those individual experiences of lack.

Trump appears to be caught between his self-image of action and ability and lack. His plight reveals that action’s opposite is not inaction but peace. Instead, he needs always again to encounter lack. This helps explain why there are so many instances of women whom Trump has abused. It also helps us understand why his image of action keeps recurring. Any hint of action defeated must be a conspiracy. It seems logical that evangelical Christians remain some of Trump’s most loyal supporters. Jesus is victorious. He is active. The Cross is empty. There is no troubling paradox of victory in defeat, love transforming hate, divine open wholeness in human brokenness – bread, wine, body. These supporters want a strong man. Trump cannot bear what he thinks of as weakness. That might just keep him out of power.

Stephen D’Evelyn on the Divine in the midst and Beyond Us

Recently I heard Darren Brown on the radio promoting his new book ‘Happy’ . He has discovered Stoicism. I liked what he said about the flaw in self-help today insisting on cranking everything up to 11 with self-belief and going for your goals full tilt while ignoring the way life throws stuff at you. I did wonder at his blanket statement that ‘religion’ (Christianity?) had supplanted Stoicism’s wisdom. In simplest chronological terms, this is almost true.

But for me there is much in traditional Christianity, in the Greek and Latin Church Fathers and theologians who have followed in their footsteps, that helps us remember to reserve judgement of others’ actions and beliefs, to remember our own frailties, and to be honest about the way the world throws stuff at us.

For example, the desert ascetic Moses the Black offers strong words on withholding judgement of others: ‘The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all in any way whatever.’ Rowan Williams comments ”If our life and our death are with the neighbour, this spells out something of what our ‘death’ to the neighbour might mean: it is to renounce the power of judgment over someone else – a task hard enough indeed to merit being described as death’ (Silence and Honey Cakes, p. 24).

And for me traditional Christianity also reminds us of a profound truth–the self is mystery. Augustine reflects on the open-endedness of emotional complexity ‘Man is a great mystery, Lord. You even keep count of the hairs on his head and not one of them escapes your reckoning. Yet his hairs are more easily counted than his feelings.’ The way in which our feelings are beyond counting shows how we are constantly changing. We are constantly in process. We are constantly in the middle of something. The something is our identity developing.

So we continually reflect, wait, look together with our fellow beings, our fellow animals. This seems to be what St Paul is getting at when he talks about ‘how now we see as through a mirror, in darkness, but then we shall see face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I also am known’.

We find a challenge to take us beyond our assumptions about Stoic ‘knowing yourself’. We are in the middle of story that is physical and metaphysical, communal and individual.

Dwelling in this perspective in 2016 also means seeing how there are different sorts of knowledge about different parts of reality. Different sorts of enquiry bring with them their own agendas, their own mirrors for viewing life. What we see in these mirrors of course includes us. Those promoting different sorts of knowledge do not stand outside those very processes of promoting and looking. This need not be a bad thing. We are in fact not just unavoidable participants but important components of knowledge we help construct. Keeping this in mind helps us see how supposedly-subjective enquiry into theology has much to say to supposedly-objective scientific enquiry and vice versa.

It may seem easy to dismiss such pondering as untestable or as disproven by physics or psychology. To me, however, one of the great gifts of traditional Christianity is its generosity, its capacity to converse with science and psychology, as well as to bring colour and shape out in all sorts of lives. I have been continually surprised by the ways in which people attending the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults with me live out the companioning that is full of the forbearance and open-heartedness we see in the renunciation of the power of judgement over someone else. We are more than the Stoic individual defined by self-knowing. As the Church we are continuously opened by the presence of Christ in our midst. This openness is an event. The person is open to others and even constituted by others because of the divine other beyond and yet among us.

Stephen D’Evelyn on the Distances in the Church of England

Recently I attended the service for the licensing of Lay Ministers. Those being licensed were my mates I trained with this past year. One of them had kindly invited me to sit with her family.
The cathedral was fittingly sublime, the music very beautiful, especially the congregational hymns. It was wonderful joining in the singing. The Church of England does a good show. Of course some pieces were only sung by the choir. It struck me that the choir was so far away one had a strange impression of great distance somehow without the volume and grandeur that conveys majesty.
Looking back on it, this ethereal distance seems in keeping with a tendency I noticed throughout the service; consistently the modern autonomous individual self dominated the perspective of the service. This was a church service centred on the modern self not the Rock of Ages, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord of Heaven and earth.
After the entrance hymn, the precentor of the cathedral outlined the liturgy, explaining how each piece of music and each reading would guide the individual in faith. Then in his address, the bishop described the individual candidates for licensed lay ministry and their individual journeys towards this moment.
Even the Bible readings emphasised the unique individual, for example in an account of prophetic calling which was given without the context of a God’s call in, thorough, and to the people of Israel, the community, the collective.
The sermon was given by the new warden or readers who looks after LLs. It dwelt on aspects of collaboration deemed essential to ministry
but collaboration was discussed in terms of the disciples’ being sent two by two not in terms of the body of Christ, the community of heaven and earth, the Church through the ages.
Reflecting on the service, I realise there was almost no sense of corporate, collective community and identity. Admittedly I notice all of this through sensibility sharpened by a number of weekly sessions of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Catholic Church’s program for receiving people. I remember being surprised how the first RCIA session did not start with us as participants — who we were, what our background stories might be — in classic educational fashion, but rather with God and the Church itself.
My sense of the LLM service’s emphasis on the individual was confirmed in a final bizarre way after the LLM service. I had gone out into the afternoon sunshine to mingle and meet my former LLMs in formation. I also met the bishop whom I had encountered during LLM formation. He mentioned having tried to gesture to me as he processed in but realising it was probably out of my field of vision. He ask ed how I was and I said fine. I returned the pleasantry and he said he was always better hearing that people like me were fine. I assume he meant people who had not finished formation for ministry.
On one level this was a sensible and even sensitive expression of pastoral care. I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable, though, given the way his earlier remark about gesturing to me had reduced any contact or communication between us to my limitations as a visually-impaired person (and one defined on his terms by a medical model of disability-my eyes weren’t good enough to pick up his gesture — rather than something more nuanced– he could have done something differently to communicate.) I think that one great loss in dwelling on the atomized individual is that we lose sight of the person as open-ended — as eschatological, yes, but also as many-layered and multi-vocal. When we dwell on the atomized individual, yes we lose sight of the social contexts and focus just on an isolated story, but we also risk losing sight of a person’s capacity and ability to live out her humanity in its great variety and vivacity. In short, we wind up with a rather drab picture.
I came away with gratitude ofr my LLM friends, for the great beauty of the cathedral, and the riches of English culture and history. But I have come away too with a new awareness of the perils of atomized individuality and absolute power–Herny VIII is surely a prime example of the atomized individual seemingly freed of community—- and of what it means to be seen as made in the image of God and not quite as made in the image of God. That is worth holding on to and sharing.

Stephen D’Evelyn: On Being Present

Recently the UK government has moved to double the pentalty imposed on drivers caught using their mobile phones while driving. Commentarotrs have ben quick to observe that these penalties may mean little without increased police to catch perpetrators. The porblenm of poeple feeling they must take advantage of every seemingly spare moment to ‘do’ something — do work or connect with friends via social media–highlights again an often-highlighted problem. We are too busy.
There is another problem with using your phone while driving. Research into cognitive patterns has shown that the way we process information when someone is not physically present–say at the end of a phone instead of sitting next to us–is categorically different from the way we process information whne someone is present. This means in practice we are distracted in a unique way when we are paying attention to our mobile phones as compared with trying to hush children in the back seat or talk to someone sitting next to us.

Generally, the big problem seems to be one of distraction and abstraction, ignoring what is in front of us or beside us for somehting or somone not present. The other day I heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand again and noticed something new. When it becomes clear that the large crowd of people gathered to listen to Jesus are going to go without an evening meal, Jesus’ followers immediately think in terms of the people going away to buy food. When Jesus asks them to help the people, they again assume he means buy food.

In the end however, Jesus asks what they have already, not what they or the people can buy. And of course the five loaves and two fish somehow suffice. This seems to me to highlight the importance of paying attention to what we have–what we have been given. This is a much different impulse from our consumerist instinct to buy things–to use abstract financial power to solve a problem. Turning to what we have been given turns our attention to what is at hand. Instead of paying for things, we are paying attention. Attention is open-endeed and not bound by the demands of payback.

The problems of paying attention were at the heart of another news item this week, the canonization of Mother Teresa. Although she famously distanced herself from politics and made some dubious decisions, such as for example taking money from a Haitian dictator, she can also be credited with practising social justice in an important way that lived out a nuanced political theory.

As i understand it, Mother Teresa’s social justice theory has three major components that are all extremely important for our screen-dominated lives: these are seeing those society does not see, being present with marginalized people (as opposed to objectifying and ‘fixing’ ‘them’), and living in solidarity with them (being alongside them). As it happens, I think these three approaches are also crucial to a full social model of disability.

At its simplest, the social model of disability says that persons are disabled by the way society is organised rather than by the ways they differ from norms of able-bodiedness.
Seeing a disabled — socially marginalized — person when others do not is a key step in living out the social model of disability. When society arranges things so that those who differ from an able-bodied norm do not figure–they are kept off stage–the first step to enabling them to figure and allowing them to take centre stage is simply seeing themn, recognising them.

Being present means challenging our natural tendency to priotitize what might be possible rather than welcoming what is before us. As it happens, mindfulness–one of the recent trends in popular psychology inevitable  with both its more rigorous and its more market-driven forms–is used to help treat young people addicted to gaming in Southeast Asia. Bieng present means talking to the people next to us rather than turing away from them to stare into our phones seeking for people we may or may not know outside of cyberspace.

Bieng present also means not creating an aritifical distance between ourselves and those next to us by treting them as problems to be solved, as objects to be gazed at, analaysed, and changed. Instead, living beside them means relinquishing our desire to be more powerful or to dominate. We can simply sit quietly next to someone at the bus stop. We can share a universal observation about the September sunshine. This is not revolutionary. But it is significant, turning ourselves back out towards our fellow human beings and that generous sun shining on us all.