Monday, 20 April 2015

The Force Awakens (Me)

Last week, we were witness to a truly remarkable event - the release of a new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. I had begun the week rather feeling rather lethargic and downcast but upon my first viewing my Midi-chlorians had be performing somersaults.

The first teaser trailer had whetted my appetite - it offered me the new hope of a return to the values of the original trilogy, revealed beautifully crafted shots of Tatooine, the Millennium Falcon, X-Wings and Tie-Fighers and gave us a tantalising glimpse of the new protagonists. The major talking point for most was the Sith with cruciform lightsabre but for me, the most striking aspect of the original teaser trailer was the production values - it felt and looked like a digitally superior vintage Star Wars.

Kylo Ren
The first teaser trailer arrived at the end of last year and I was beginning to get impatient for a further Star Wars fix and when it finally arrived, I wasn't disappointed. I'm a massive Star Wars fan at the best of times but I the second trailer sent me into overdrive. My reaction was remarkably similar to that of Fr Roderick Vonhögen (though less cows were involved) and I think I actually sat for a few minutes of contented silence after watching it.

Here are a few things I spotted in the trailer which may pique your interest:

1) Most of the Imperial Fleet was destroyed at Endor. How did this Imperial Star Destroyer end up on Tatooine? Has it been sitting there for 30 years since a post Endor Battle (Tatooine is a long way from the core and the Imperial Remnant) or does its crash form part of the narrative of  the film?

Edit: A friend has informed me that the planet depicted in this scene is not Tatooine. It is a new planet called Jakku and is the home of Rey. The Star Destroyer has clearly been at rest on the plannet for quite some time so I doubt it's demise will have taken place in the present of the film.


2) "The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power too..."

"My father has it" is evocative of the present. Is Luke referring to Anakin Skywalker's ghost presence or had Vader been resurrected, perhaps by cloning?

"The Force is strong in my family" suggests that Luke is not talking to a son, niece or nephew as he would probably have said "our family".

3) This scene looks like Luke is at a funeral pyre. Is it a flashback to Vader's or has another major character passed into the Force? The scene focuses on R2D2 - has C3PO gone to meet his maker?


4) Vader's mask was burned along with his body on Endor - someone has gone to some trouble to retrieve it. An apprentice? An heir to his legacy?


5) Are those moisture vaperator in the background? Is Kylo Ren om Tatooine?


6) That's snow in the background. Is this Hoth? Maybe it's a flashback to Alderaan and the return of the Sith Empire? Is that the Emperor in the centre?


7) The soundtrack reveals further evolution of the icon Star Wars theme which is equal parts sombre, heroic and exciting.

So, I guess you could say the trailer has me hooked and very excited! I like the fact that it entices us into the new with glimpses of the old but doesn't give any plot details away (despite my attempts to squeeze them out).  I agree with Han, "Chewie, we're home!"

[1] http://www.starwars.com/video/star-wars-the-force-awakens-official-teaser-2
[2] http://www.starwars.com/video/star-wars-the-force-awakens-official-teaser
[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/04/18/watch-a-priest-delightfully-geek-out-over-the-new-star-wars-trailer/

Saturday, 18 April 2015

What becomes of the disenfranchised?

On May 7th  2015, our country will go to the polls to elect our next government. As I have related in a previous post [1], thanks to my Grandfather, I have always considered it important to exercise my democratic right to vote. The Catechism of the Catholic Church impresses upon the faithful the importance of making informed decisions with regards to politics where it suggests "by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will... It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer." [2]

As with most major elections, the Bishops Conference of England and Wales have released a letter [3] which it believes highlights the most pressing issues for Catholics. Though I  have found some previous letters poorly veiled attempts to support a particular party (Tony Blair's New Labour for example) or lacking in a fully Catholic vision, this year I think it's balanced, helpful and prescient. The headings alone match most of my concerns for this election: Respecting life, Supporting marriage and family life; alleviating poverty, Educating for the good of all, Building communities, Caring for the world.

Despite my best intentions to vote in a positive manner I still feel disenfranchised by the British political system. If anything, the feelings of alienation from and ambivalence towards the prevailing culture have worsened since the European elections as the political classes continue to enact policies and make decisions which undermine the moral fabric of society, run contrary to social justice and threaten religious freedom. The rejection of the Abortion (Sex-Selection) Bill, derailed because abortion is a seemingly untouchable bastion of the existing liberal consensus, revealed to me the truly duplicitous nature of British politics. The Bill would not have altered the law but clarified that the sex of a child could not be a contributing factor to any of the criteria required for a an abortion. Among the spurious reasons given for voting against the Bill, MPs suggested that it would risk criminalising women who were being pressured to seek a sex selective abortion and that the terminology conferred "personhood on the foetus" even though the term "baby" is already present in the existing legislation. So called feminists should be particularly ashamed of their failure to vote for the Bill as female children are disproportionately affected by the issue. Is abortion really the lynch pin for all that "feminists" hope to achieve? 

I believe that the primary responsibilities of government are to promote virtue and enact policies which promote the cohesion and stability of society. Virtue is most effectively encouraged in the family and for this reason, society should be built upon family and families should be placed at the center of governmental strategy. This does not mean that individuals have no place in society, that their voices should remain unheard or that they should not be cared for - on the contrary, they will be better served by a society in which respecting individuals is part of the moral and social fabric. Society has a duty of care to to all it's members but this is particularly true for the poorest and most vulnerable. 

In the lead up to the previous General Election, I agreed that in order to tackle the government deficit which had steadily been accrued by the irresponsible spending of the previous Labour government, some form of austerity would be required. In addition, recognising that some of this debt was necessary to protect the country from the impact of the financial crisis precipitated by the selfish and greedy actions of businesses and banks, I hoped that the new government would seek to promote more ethical practices throughout the sector which would ensure greater fiscal and social responsibility. Additionally, with personal UK debt standing at over one trillion pounds, I wanted the government to do more to dissuade people from going into debt and to ensure that those that did were not held to ransom by banks and lenders. Five years on, the promises of the Conservative and Liberal Coalition on debt management have not been entirely met and I believe that the austerity measures disproportionately affected many of the most vulnerable in society.

Given the issues which matter to me the most, I cannot in good conscience vote for any particularly party. The Conservatives appear to be under the sway of vested economic interests and the Labour party appears to be fiscally irresponsible, forever keeping us in a spiral of boom and bust as it spends money we don't have, waiting for the next government to take the unpopular decisions required to redeem the country's finances. All the major parties have long supported the progressive liberal social agenda which is so antithetical to the Christian understanding of the dignity of the human person whilst the Green party manifesto reads like something from a distopian novel. Despite their protestations, UKIP are a rather one dimensional party which attracts some of the more unsavory elements of British society. There is nothing inherently racist in opposing immigration but many of those who claim to support UKIP do so precisely for that reason. I am personally not against immigration but I would like more confidence in the system if only to ensure that those people we welcome into our country intend to do us no harm. As an affluent country, I believe we have a duty to give aid our international brothers and sisters so UKIP's promise to cut the UK’s foreign aid budget by two-thirds strikes me inhumane as some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world depend on the UK for food, medicine and education.

As I could not bring myself to vote for a particular party, I decided that I would be willing to vote for a local candidate if I thought they would represent my concerns in parliament. I therefore emailed (details below) the candidates for Swansea West for the Conservative, Liberal, UKIP Green and Plaid Cymru parties to see if I could give my vote to one of them (I didn't bother with Geraint Davies our current Labour MP as his voting record is exceedingly poor). Unfortunately, not one of the candidates has replied to my email. 

I hope one day to be sufficiently convinced of the qualities of an individual or party to be able to vote for them but until a party or movement emerges which is brave enough to take on the liberal hegemony, I am set to continue the time honoured practice of spoiling my vote.


Email to Candidates
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear XXX,

I believe that it important to use our right to vote in an informed and considered manner. Despite this belief however, I have long felt felt alienated by the British political system and its parties and therefore am inclined to register this dissatisfaction with a spoiled vote. As I feel unable to give positive assent to a particular party, I am willing to consider voting for an individual candidate based on their own convictions. In order to help me decide whether or not to vote for you in the upcoming election, please could you answer the following questions:


1) Had you been an MP in the previous parliamentary term, how would you have voted on


a) Abortion (Sex-Selection) Bill - http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/abortionsexselection.html
b) Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015 - http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2015/february/commons-debate-statutory-instrument-on-mitochondrial-donation/
c) Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 - http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/marriagesamesexcouplesbill.html


2) If elected to parliament, how would you vote on the Assisted Dying Bill (http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/assisteddying.html), if it were to be presented?

Kind Regards,

Luke O'Sullivan

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] http://lucascambrensis.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/spoiling-for-vote.html
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 898
[3] http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/content/download/54629/421861/file/elect15-bps-letter.pdf


Thursday, 2 April 2015

The Easter Triduum and the Synod on the Faimily

Today sees the start of the Easter Triduum, the liturgical celebration which begins on the evening of Maunday Thursday, continues with the remembrance of Good Friday and ends with Evening prayer on Easter Sunday. As it recalls the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus it is, as Pope Francis has said "the apex of our liturgical year and it is also the apex of our lives as Christians". [1]

The liturgy of the "great Mass" which begins with the institution of the Eucharist and Priesthood on Maunday Thursday, continues with the remembrance of the Passion at 3 O'Clock on Good Friday and ends with the celebration of the resurrection in the Easter Vigil is truly a work of art which cannot but touch one's soul and raise one's heart and mind to God. I look forward with anticipation to the beauty and hope that is contained in the great Easter Exultet.

To make the most of these great celebrations, I will be turning off my phone, closing my laptop and refraining from use of the television. I try to let secular concerns have as little influence on my life as possible during this period so all my reading will also be of a religious nature.

Before I enter this time of reflection, I would like to encourage you to offer your Easter observances for a successful outcome to the Synod on the Family which will take place later this year. It is painfully obvious that marriage and family life, even within the fellowship of the Church, is in dire need of support and reinvigoration. The great pastoral mission of the Church for families cannot be achieved by rejecting Christ's teachings on the nature of marriage - we need rather to rediscover the beauty of God's plan for mankind in this regard which finds it's ultimate template in the communion of the persons of the Trinity and the heavenly nuptial Mass of Christ and his bride, the Church. The Church also needs to be far better equipped for dealing with the consequences of marital and family breakdowns - it is the ultimate conduit of mercy and hope for those who suffer. In addition to healing those in the present, it also needs to look to the future. Young people need to be better equipped to deal with the responsibilities and trials of marriage and this will only be possible if they understand its beauty more fully and delve deeply into the graces it affords those who make the effort to life it faithfully.

The threat to this vision and to the unity of the church is very real. Confusion abounds and it is clear that there is a sizeable body of Cardinals and Bishops who dissent from Church teaching who are determined to push their agenda through at the Synod. Please consider reading @ccfather [2] and @otsota [3] to understand the gravity of what's at stake. Please also consider signing this petition [4] in support of our priests, families and Church.

I wish you a blessed Easter Triduum!    

[1] http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-the-easter-triduum-is-the-apex-of-our-christi
[2] http://ccfather.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/what-is-at-stake.html
[3] http://onthesideoftheangels.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-toughiethe-real-problem-with-synod.html
[4] http://marklambert.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/in-support-of-our-priests-our-families.html

Sunday, 29 March 2015

In support of our priests, our families, and our Church

You may have seen the recent letter from more than 450 priests in support of the Church’s teaching on marriage.

I would like to invite you to sign the letter below, to be sent to the press in support of them, and to encourage others to sign it.

To sign, please email your name and diocese to one of the coordinators:

Mark Lambert (mark@landbtechnical.com)
Andrew Plasom-Scott (andrewplasom_scott@me.com)

The Letter:

Dear Sir, We, the undersigned, wish to endorse and support the letter signed by over 450 priests in the recent edition of the Catholic Herald, http://bit.ly/19kuBkl. As laity, we all know from our own family experiences, or those of our friends and neighbours, the harrowing trauma of divorce and separation, and we sympathise with all those in such situations.

It is precisely for that reason that we believe that the Church must continue to proclaim the truth about marriage, given us by Christ in the Gospels, with clarity and charity in a world that struggles to understand it.

For the sake of those in irregular unions, for the sake of those abandoned and living in accordance with the teachings of the Church, and above all for the sake of the next generation, it is essential that the Church continues to make it quite clear that sacramental marriage is indissoluble until death.

We pray, and expect, that our hierarchy will represent us, and the Church’s unwavering teaching, at the Synod this autumn.

Yours faithfully,

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Sacred Heart Statue Update

In my previous post [1], I related how I came across a statue of the Sacred Heart in a Swansea bar which had been adorned with a gas mask and a sign for the toilets. I wrote a letter to the proprietor of the bar to register my protest and to try and explain why the statue was an affront to my faith. I was not sure I would get a reply but, a week later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter [see below] from Noah Redfern, the owner of Noah's Yard. The contents of the letter were likewise somewhat unexpected - I assumed Noah would appeal to the concept of Freedom of Speech and Expression to justify the disposition of the statue but they instead followed a quasi-theological route.

In his letter, Noah let me know that the statue was not a planned display; it rather came about piecemeal as various items were added to it over time. He intimated that though he was a Christian, he did not associate the statue with the person of Jesus because it did not match the likely physical characteristics of a man born in Palestine. Noah also suggested that the prohibition on worshiping idols meant that Christ would not condone the Catholic use of statues and images as aids to worship. Finally, he expressed his hope that the statue would provoke debate on religion, war and world issues such as the occupation of Palestine and kindly invited me to discuss the matter further with him over a Mojito.

In responding to Noah, my primary concern was to try and get him to accept that though he did not consider the statue to be offensive, many Christians would, with good reason, have cause to take issue with its presentation as he seemed to indicate in his letter that I had no justifiable reason to react as I did. I'm not sure if I managed to do that as I have yet to receive a reply but I hope that I have managed to "give reason of that hope which is in me". [2] I am very grateful to my friends from whom I asked advice before I made my response as I was keen to make sure that I pitched it in terms more likely to result in a positive outcome. I have shared my correspondence with the parish priest of the area so I am still hopeful the statue will find a more suitable home. I will not be returning to Noah's Yard unless it is removed and I urge fellow Christians and those who respect my position to make their opinions known.

[1] http://lucascambrensis.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/charlie-comes-to-swansea.html
[2] 1 Peter: 3:15


Noah's Letter
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Dear Luke,

Thank you for the letter regarding the Catholic statue and also for the kind words regarding the quality of drinks and service.

I am very sorry that it offended you on your visit, but I feel it is definitely not Jesus and stands as just an icon of plaster and paint which to some people it may look like Jesus. I personally believe he had fairly dark skin and features, having been born in Judea and his parents being from Mesopotamia. To this day nobody has any proof of what he looks like, and whether he was of African decent, Arab or of white skin.

I have a wonderful relationship with God and Jesus myself but choose not to go to church. The old statue was rescued from an antique auction and forgetting about any religious connotations it has, this object has been hand crafted and painted to a very high level and is a thing of beauty in its own right. 

I absolutely love it for these qualities and not for it being a religious icon to some people of the
Catholic Church. I imagine you are Catholic with a name like O'Sullivan ? I did study the bible many years ago and my uncle being the Bishop of Derby (Alistair Redfern ) I discussed this matter with him. I am very certain that Jesus made it very clear in his teachings that he did not want any icons or false gods to be treated as holy and in this case there is nothing Holy about the plaster cast
that is in my premises.

From my records the statue would have been made by a tradesman somewhere in Ireland in 1920's and the Church would have been deconsecrated when the building had stopped being a place of worship.

King James 2000 Bible
You shall make no idols nor graven images, neither raise you up a standing image, neither shall you set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God

I am certain that the statue creates great debates about religion, war and world issues at the premises and gets people talking about real issues for example the occupation of Palestine, I am sure that your faith is strong enough not to be offended by a icon, if you are offended surely the sight of a person of an opposing religion would cause you offence.

Well there you have it, that is my 'motivation' for the installation. I would like to point out none of it was planned it just happened. ( I was given the safe, the statue turned up at an auction, the toilet sign had no where else to go, the broom is used every night at the premises, and the gas mask was randomly in the Stock room and a member of staff just placed it on his head one time)

I would like to take this opportunity to give you my apologies and I am sorry that you have interpreted this in a negative way, its purpose was to create debate and if you would like to discuss this matter further over a Mojito I would be happy to do so.

Your Sincerely 

Noah Redfern

My Response
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Dear Noah,


Thank you for your reply to my letter regarding the statue of Jesus which you have on display in Noah’s Yard. I appreciate the courtesy you have shown me in your response and your willingness to engage with me on this matter. I hope you will indulge me a little further with my own response to some of the issues you raise in your letter.


You are quite right to surmise that I am a Catholic and so you must therefore understand why I have taken a particular interest in what you have identified as a Catholic statue. Indeed, the statue would be instantly recognisable as that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the vast majority of Catholics and a similar one can be found in my own Church in Gendros. The Catholic Church in Morriston is actually called “The Sacred Heart”. As Christians, Catholics rightly reject all forms of idolatry but along with the Orthodox and Eastern Churches, many members of the Anglican Communion and other denominations, we believe that the use of statues, images, signs and symbols are means by which we can offer worship to God. We do not worship the statues or images themselves, but rather use them to give praise and glory to God who alone is worthy of our worship.


Throughout the bible, God speaks to his people in signs and symbols so it should come as no surprise that our response to Him should also be made through such signs and symbols, perhaps most emphatically in Jesus’ association of his own Body and Blood with bread and wine. There are several instances where God explicitly directs his people to make use of statues or figures in divine worship. For example, in Exodus 25:18-20, God commands Moses to carve two cherubim which would sit on top of the Ark of the Covenant and in Numbers 21:8–9 he is likewise ordered to make a statue of “a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it shall live”. In the later case, the fact that the faithful had to actually look at the bronze statue of the serpent to be healed shows that statues can be used in religious practice, not just as decorations or works of art.

The Sacred Heart statue in my own parish has accompanied me on my journey of faith my entire life and I have been inspired to offer many prayers to Jesus in its presence. It reminds me especially of Jesus’ love for us because it depicts His heart which was pierced by a lance as he suffered and died for us at his crucifixion. I have lit many candles in front of it as a symbol of my prayers for myself, for loved ones and for those who have died. Unless it is smashed to pieces, the statue in your possession will always retain its religious significance because it depicts the Sacred Heart; it cannot be divested of this original purpose and meaning even though it is rather ignominously being used a sign post to the toilets and profaned with the addition of the gas mask. The juxtaposition of a gas mask with proximity toilets is suggestive of a rather crude toilet humour. When I saw how the statue was being used in Noah’s Yard the first thing which came to my mind was another scene from Jesus’ passion and death: "And the men that held him, mocked him, and struck him. And they blindfolded him, and smote his face. And they asked him, saying: Prophesy, who is it that struck thee? And blaspheming, many other things they said against him."


Regardless of what He actually looked like and despite the fact that you do not regard the statue with religious significance, I believe that the vast majority of people would certainly identify it as a statue of Jesus and recognise that it has religious significance for some Christians. Its primary debating point is therefore likely to be regarding the disposition of a religious statue in a profane manner and, unless you are supplying your own context to your customers, I do not see how it is likely to provoke a debate on war or Palestine. I would respectfully suggest that whilst provoking debate can be a very useful tool in opening people to new possibilities, it should not be at the risk of causing offense. As Saint Paul suggests in Corinthians, "Never do anything offensive to anyone - to Jews or Greeks or to the Church of God; just as I try to be helpful to everyone at all times".


In this response I hope to have at least convinced you of two things:


1) the way in which the statue is displayed is offensive to me and others because we believe that figures and images serve a legitimate role in offering praise and worship to God and that the misuse of such objects is an affront to our Faith

2) The majority of people will associate the statue with the person of Jesus and understand that its display in such a manner will be regarded as irreverent or offensive to many Christians


As a Christian, I believe it is my duty to “stand up for Christ” and I feel that I would be denying that Faith if I did not take issue with how you have displayed the statue. As you say that you have a wonderful relationship with God and Jesus, I hope that you will forgive me if I have stated anything which is rather obvious to you; I suspect we come from quite different Christian traditions so I was a little concerned something might get “lost in translation”. As I have given up alcohol for Lent, I am afraid I will have to respectfully decline your offer of a Mojito. I have included my e-mail address with this letter however in case it is more convenient for you to reply there.


Thank you again for the opportunity to express my opinions,
Kind Regards,

Luke O’Sullivan

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Charlie comes to Swansea

Last weekend, I unfortunately came across an example of the sort of irreverence towards religious sensitivities that the recent #JeSuisCharlie event would have accept as legitimate expressions of freedom of speech.

Statue at Noah's Yard, Swansea
Whilst visiting Noah's Yard, a bar in Swansea, I came across a large statue of the Sacred Heart upon which a gas mask and a sign indicating the direction of the toilets had been hung. My mind was immediately drawn towards Luke 22:63 - "And the men that held him, mocked him, and struck him. And they blindfolded him, and smote his face. And they asked him, saying: Prophesy, who is it that struck thee? And blaspheming, many other things they said against him."

My immediate feelings were not those of anger but sadness so rather than attempt to remove the gas mask and sign, I resolved to write a letter (included below) to the proprietor to try and make him or her understand why seeing the statue of our Lord disposed in such a manner affected me so profoundly. I have waited for a week for a response and, as I have not received one, I have decided to publish this blog post. 

Before I wrote the letter, I had to be sure that my objections were reasonable as I began to wonder if I would have condoned the display of a non-religious statue in such a manner. What if the statue had been of a politician, a member of the royal family or a celebrity? I tend to think that had that been the case, I probably would have brushed the display off as being bizarre, possibly distasteful but perhaps legitimate satire, not worthy of a letter.

I do however think there is an important distinction between the statue of Christ on one hand and my hypothetical examples on the other. The first is that the original purpose of the statue, namely religious worship, is being subverted by it's context and adorning and this constitutes at best religious insensitivity and at worst a direct assault on Christian belief itself. I do think God has a sense of humour and I am not adverse to religious jokes or memes which use images of Christ but I believe this instance goes beyond well intentioned comedy. I would certainly support the right of those who were saddened or angered by the mocking of their own beliefs or revered figures to express their opinions.

Secondly, it is my duty as a Christian to stand for Christ and to redress insults against the Holy Name, not just for His own sake but also for the sake of those who "do not know what they are doing": "whoever denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God" [1] and "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap". [2] I would be less concerned if particular Catholic or Christian practices were being mocked or satirised but here it is the person of Jesus Christ who is the target. 

Finally, if I remained silent on the matter, it would be yet another instance where such irreverence was left unchallenged. Christ told us that we should "turn the other" cheek but he also asked those who assaulted him at his trail "why do you strike me?". The proprietor may have a right to freedom of speech and expression but so do I and I am choosing to do so in this manner. Freedom of expression is important but it is how we use it that defines our humanity. Why choose to use a freedom which many people throughout the world do not have to mock and ridicule? Though I agree to a certain degree that Christianity is a "soft" and "safe" target for ridicule and mockery, I do not think it is a valid argument to bemoan the apparent bias or fear of those who only pillory certain groups outside of their political, social or moral dispositions. Rather, as Christians, we should ask why people are comfortable mocking and satirising our Faith? I suspect, the answer will be found less in determined opposition based up theological, philosophical or moral precepts and more in our  own behaviour and apathy. 

"Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" [3]

As I say in my letter, it makes no business sense to alienate a section of potential customers. Noah's Yard may as well put up a sign which says "Christians are not welcome here". I certainly shall not be returning there until the statue is removed.  

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear Sir or Madam, 

Last weekend, encouraged by the experiences of several friends, I paid a visit Noah’s Yard. When I entered, I was greeted with a pleasant and lively atmosphere and felt confident that the venue would live up to its reputation. I was served by polite and engaging staff and sat down with a friend to enjoy a tasty Mojito. 

My first impressions of Noah’s Yard were very favourable but they were totally destroyed when I made my way to the toilets and saw a statue of Jesus upon which a gas mask and a sign indicating the direction of the toilets had been hung. I found the spectacle demeaning, upsetting and an affront to my Christian faith. 

I do not know your motivations for displaying the statue of Jesus in such a manner but I would like to explain why I and others like me may react to it in such a negative way. The heart of Christianity is a personal relationship with God, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ who we believe became man, eventually giving up his own life so that our sins would be forgiven, winning for us the eternal life to which we are all called. When a Christian sees a statue of Jesus displayed in such a manner, they see a friend who they love and have the utmost respect for demeaned and dehumanised. Can you imagine how you might feel if you came across a loved one (a spouse, a child or a parent for example) who was forced to stand in the corner of a bar with a gas mask on their face and a sign for the toilets at their feet? 

I do not think that your motivation for displaying the statue is worth the potential alienation it will cause to others who feel as strongly about the issue as I do, so I hope that you will remove the statue, if not for the potential hurt it may cause then for the sake of your business. Until it is removed, I cannot in good conscience return to your establishment. At your convenience, I would appreciate a reply to my concerns. 

Yours Sincerely, 

Luke O’Sullivan 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Lk 12:9
[2] Galations 6:7
[3] Col 4:5-6

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Time to talk

Today is "Time to Talk Day", an initiative of "Time to Change" which aims to raise awareness of mental health issues and end mental health discrimination. [1] As I have suffered from anxiety and depression for he best part of 20 years, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

This video is one of the best explanations of what it's like to have depression that I have come across (wish they hadn't used a dog though)


A little bit of History

I first began to experience serious anxiety when I was around fifteen years old. I had always been a slightly anxious child - I remember disliking harsh words, confrontation and being afraid of being beaten up - but things began to get worse during the years when I was doing my GCSEs. I had my first minor panic attack when I was sixteen and from then on, I often couldn't eat because my stomach would seize up. The psychosomatic effect on my stomach has stayed with me and at the time it was dangerous because I began to lose a lot of what little weight I had - I left school weighing seven and a half stone. I still find it difficult to remember what triggered these panic attacks; some have suggested that it may have been stress related to school work but I always enjoyed studying and I don't remember dreading revision or exams. At the time, some doctors thought I was anorexic whilst others prescribed me medication for irritable bowel syndrome. I did attend some relaxation classes but they didn't achieve enough to relieve the symptoms. 

I suffered my first major depressive episode when I was seventeen and it was triggered my first major panic attack. In the weeks leading up to it, I was unable to control my thoughts and my mind was racing. I wasn't able to sleep properly and I felt constantly nauseous. Things came to a head one evening when I was trying to get to sleep. The racing mind, the sweats and the nervous energy all combined to convince me that I was going mad. The next morning, and for every morning for what seemed like an eternity, my first act was to be sick with stomach bile. I began a steady spiral into despair which would eventually leave me wishing for death - I just didn't want to wake up another morning feeling so low. Thanks to the support of my family and faith, I never doubted that I was loved or possessed self worth. I never took any actions towards that end but it is a crushing experience to wish for death each day.

My recovery process was long and hard. I was prescribed the anti-depressant Seroxat and received cognitive therapy which helped me to understand what was happening to me. I firmly believe that learning about the physiological conditions of depression and anxiety helped me to overcome them because I like to understand how things work. The cognitive therapy also helped me to identify how my thought patterns could bring on panic attacks and contribute to my depression. I began to see how in some circumstances, I would allow my thoughts immediately jump to the worst case scenario, rather than consider more balanced and rational likelihoods. Dealing with the fear of returning to a major depressive state was also incredibly important as I was triggering that which I was seeking to avoid. Accepting that I may never fully recover from depression but that it was possible to live with it was likewise crucial to my rehabilitation. Little by little, I made my recovery; I was able to sit my A-Levels and though I needed to take a year out, I made it to university. Since that time, I have suffered three other major depressive periods, two coinciding with an attempt to wean myself off Seroxat and one whilst undertaking a PGCE course.

Though I continue to have periods of depression and anxiety, major panic attacks are thankfully quite rare but I do get the odd "spike" when I hear potentially worrying news about family or friends. Perhaps my greatest break through is that my appetite is not adversely affected by periods of depression or anxiety - I am therefore able to keep up my strength and weight which helps when I'm in a rut. Exercise and healthy eating is now a crucial part of my daily routine and I usually spend an hour and a half a day at the gym. I also try to ensure I don't get over tired (which is quite a challenge as I often go through bouts of insomnia when I am unable to control my thoughts) and have to be very careful with alcohol - a "big night" can leave me low for several weeks. I have also tried to make more time for prayer, spiritual reading and Mass and have found great consolation in doing so. Just before Advent, I made a retreat to Belmont Abbey and I think I will now look to make regular retreats to take time out and take stock of my situation.

Paradise lost

Having suffered from depression and anxiety for the majority of my life, I find it difficult to remember what it was like to live without it. It necessarily effects my decisions and ambitions and I have a vague sense that in some respects, I am the lesser for it. It has restricted my capacity for thought because I don't always feel in control of my own mental processes and I sometimes lapse into irrationality which only becomes apparent to me after the fact. It is hard to have to wonder how much of my personality is really me and how much of it is due to Seroxat and its side effects. As I am also diminished in my ability to cope with stress, I have to be very careful what pressures I put myself under, especially with regards to work and personal life. When I was younger, I was convinced I would be a "high flyer" with a well paid and important job but having learnt from friends the stresses and strains such positions entail, I know they would be detrimental to my health.

Besides periods where I feel low and anxious, the most lasting effect of my depression is poor sleep and a lack of energy. I am prone to periods where I feel quite anti-social and I often go through frantic periods of mental activity, which I sometimes find relief from through reading or coding.

As a Catholic, the two major vocations are to the priesthood or the married life but I have decided that both are beyond me. I doubt my capacity to be a good priest or husband and father because of the mental fortitude required and because there are times when I feel the need to withdraw into myself and to be alone. The thought of experiencing a major depressive episode with the responsibilities incumbent on a priest or husband and father fills me with dread and as I believe that all dating should be entered into with the possibility of marriage in mind, I am necessarily single. Such decisions do not of course lesson my attraction towards women or my examination of vocation so it always a bitter-sweet when I see a pretty face, learn someone I have affection for begins dating or attend an engagement party, wedding or ordination. In this, I am sometime troubled because I wonder if my decision amounts to a denial of the possibility of God's grace giving me the strength to fulfil such vocations. If it does, it is a serious matter indeed.

Depression and anxiety have been a great test of my faith - at times, I struggled to find God in the midst of my suffering. Why didn't he take this cross from me? What possible good could it achieve? If only I was free of it, I could accomplish so much more.

Paradise regained 

It may sound asinine to suggest that there may be any positives in depression and anxiety but after healing and reflection, I finally managed to find them. Despite my initial despair and anger with God, the whole experience has strengthened my Faith. I am able to recognise God's guiding hand in the decisions I made and the people that encouraged me throughout my journey. The suffering aspect of Faith is something I had never considered before my depression and it particularly drew me closer to Christ through his passion and death. I am convinced that the Cross is the only answer to sin and suffering because it leads to the Resurrection. Who knows - if it wasn't for depression, maybe my faith wouldn't have been as important to me as it is now?

I believe that my own experiences with suffering have made me a better person - I have greater empathy with those in pain and I am less judgemental because I recognise that we are not always completely free to make the right decisions when we suffer. Though I don't always show it, I appreciate my family and friends a lot more because I recognise how their support was and is for my own well-being. Indeed, if I hadn't have taken a year out from university, I may never have made the great and lasting friendships I eventually made there or at current workplace. I have found it a privilege to give advice and help to some people who have experienced depression and anxiety for themselves and I now regularly pray for all those so afflicted. My experiences may also have tempered any inclinations towards materialism and arrogance with regards to my own abilities.

I could name point to a million and one little things which, in response to depression and anxiety have given me great satisfaction but a few will suffice. I have already mentioned the gym but (when I'm not injured), I also enjoy running. My love of classical music is in part due to the fact that I asked a friend to recommend some relaxing pieces which I could listen to when I was feeling anxious. The same friend also suggested that I try watching Star Trek when I wanted to take my mind off things because it was often on late at night when I couldn't sleep (As an avowed Star Wars fan I was deeply suspicious of Trekkers at the time but I was soon converted). At my lowest ebb, I found great solace in the natural world, be it in the great outdoors, natural history and animals and such an appreciation is now a vital part of my life.

I'll end this post with an invitation to anyone who suffers from depression and anxiety to seek help. One in four people will suffer in this way at some point in our life so there are more of us out there than you might think. Talking about it is the first step to dealing with it and making a recovery. I would advise against taking medication immediately (doctors seem too quick to prescribe anti-depressants when cognitive and similar therapies should be tried first) but do not be afraid to do so should it be deemed necessary. If you are prescribed medication, make sure you are aware of all the contra-indications first and try and get someone to help monitor you during the process (monitoring and re-evaluation is perhaps not all it should be in the NHS). Please also take a holistic approach to your health - we all need to take care of ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually.

The patron saint of those who suffer from emotional or mental disorders is Saint Dymphna, who was born in Ireland during the 7th century, her feast day being traditionally celebrated on May 15. A Novena for her intercession can be found at http://www.praymorenovenas.com/st-dymphna-novena/

Litany to Saint Dymphna

Lord have mercy on us. 
Christ have mercy on us. 
Lord have mercy on us. 
Christ hear us. 
Christ graciously hear us. 

God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us. 
God the Son, Redeemer of the World, have mercy on us. 
God the Holy Ghost, have mercy on us. 
Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us. 

Holy Mary, Virgin Mother of God, pray for us.
Health of the sick, pray for us. 
Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us. 
Our Lady, Help of Christians, pray for us. 

St. Dymphna, virgin and Martyr, pray for us.
St. Dymphna, daughter of royal parents, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, child of great beauty of soul and body, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, docile to the lessons of thy pious mother, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, obedient to thy saintly confessor, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, who abandoned the court of thy father to 
escape the danger of impurity, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, who chose a life of poverty on earth so that thou might lay up 
treasures in Heaven, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, who sought consolation at Holy Mass, Communion and prayer, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, ardent lover of the Divine Bridegroom, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, devoted to the Mother of God, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, beheaded by thine own father, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, Martyr of holy purity, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, brilliant example of Christian youth, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, renowned for many miracles, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, glory of Ireland and Belgium, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, full of compassion for those in need, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, protectress against all nervous and mental disorders, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, consoler of the afflicted, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, friend of the helpless, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, comforter of the despondent, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, light of those in mental darkness, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, patroness of those who suffer with nervous and mental diseases, pray for us.

That we may love the lord our God with all our hearts and above all things, 
pray for us. 
That we may hate sin and avoid all occasion of sin, pray for us. 
That we may carefully preserve the virtue of purity to our state, pray for us. 
That we may receive the Sacraments frequently, pray for us. 
That we may obtain the spirit of prayer, pray for us. 
That we may be humble and obedient, resigning ourselves to God's Holy Will, 
pray for us. 
That we may learn to have confidence in God during our afflictions, pray for us. 
That we may obtain the grace of final perseverance, pray for us.

In moments of temptation, pray for us. 
In times of sickness, disease, war, and persecution, pray for us. 
In our last illness, pray for us. 
And at the hour of our death, pray for us.

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, spare us O Lord 
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, graciously hear us O Lord. 
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Pray for us Saint Dymphna, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us Pray.

O God, since Thou didst give St. Dymphna to Thy Church as a model of all virtues, especially holy purity, and willed that she shouldst seal her faith with her innocent blood and perform numerous miracles, grant that we who honor her as patroness of those afflicted with nervous and mental illness, may continue to enjoy her powerful intercession and protection and attain eternal life. Through Christ our 
Lord. Amen.


[1] http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/timetotalkday