Thursday, 24 September 2015

Pray, Hope and Don't Worry

It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. [1]

The tomb of Padre Pio
Today is the feast day of one of my favourite saints; Saint Pius of of Pietrelcina, known to the Catholic world as Padre Pio. My father has a strong devotion to this enigmatic friar from Italy and spent a lot of time in the years preceding his canonisation spreading his message around the country. From an early age, I remember attending Padre Pio Days which included talks on his life and ministry together with slide shows, film reels, book stalls and piety stalls. I was amazed (and rather terrified) by the stories of his battles with devil and marvelled at his ability to bilocate, prophecy and discern the true state of a person's soul (For those who don't know much about him, I've included a short biography at the end of this post). Padre Pio's life was marked by extreme physical suffering, mental anguish and spiritual assault yet he was able to inspire others to live holy and fruitful lives: 

Joy, with peace, is the sister of charity. Serve the Lord with laughter.

This year, towards the end of May, I managed to fulfil a life long ambition and make a pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotundo with two friends. Here, I use pilgrimage in the loosest sense of the word; we flew to the closest airport and stayed at a four star hotel literally a stone's throw from the shrine but I believe we all received immense spiritual benefits from the experience despite cheating.

San Giovanni Rotundo is located in Apulia region of Southern Italy. It's set on a plateau at the foot of a small mountain range in the Parco Nazionale del Gargano. As we had limited time, we decided to hire a car and drive from the airport so we were able to appreciate the geographical characteristics of the region. Driving in Italy is a thoroughly nerve wrecking experience especially when one's SatNav decides take routes through the narrowest streets in town or over a ten kilometre stretch of road which hasn't been built yet. I am quite sure that Padre Pio was largely responsible for returning the car to the hire firm in the same state in which it was leased to us. As taxing as driving was, the car did afford us one of the highlights of the trip - we were able to visit Monte Sant'Angelo and the shrine of Saint Michael. In doing so, we had a better understanding of why Padre Pio had such a strong devotion to the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts.

Mass at Saint Michael's Cave
Apart from Gargano, the land was only a little above sea level and most of it was given over to the cultivation of olives, fruit and grains. Though nearby Foggia is a large city, the rest of the countryside appeared to be sparsely populated with isolated farm houses and the odd coastal town. It was great to get a feel for the landscape in which Padre Pio would have undertaken his ministry. Though a lack of time meant that we weren't able to explore San Giovanni as much as we would have liked, it owes most of it's modern character to Padre Pio and the pilgrims he attracts. May appears to be a very quiet period for the shrine and the town itself felt a little empty.

View from Monte Sant'Angelo to the sea
Due to the nature of its expansion over the years, the Padre Pio shrine complex is set on several levels (though we only discovered this on the penultimate day). The new Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church is a massive structure with an upper and lower church, a blessed sacrament chapel, a museum, shops and a huge piazza. Designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2004, it can accommodate 6500 pilgrims in the upper church and 30,000 outside. To my eye, the upper Church is a monstrosity; it looks like the set off one of the alien films and I didn't find it at all conducive to prayer. Thankfully, the lower church which houses the crypt and the tomb of St Padre Pio is far more intimate and I spent many hours there either in prayer and discernment. The walls of the passage way to the lower church and the interior of the church itself are decorated with mosaics designed by Fr. Marko I. Rupnik. Though the style of the mosaics is not to my taste, the theology behind them (gratefully explained to us by a friend who joined us from Rome) is both profound and awe inspiring. They tell the story of Padre Pio with collieries to the life of Saint Francis and depict scenes from the Bible.

Mosaic of Padre Pio and St Michael
The Holy Family
The piazza
The lower church
The second church on the site is Santa Maria della Grazie and it was built in Padre Pio's lifetime, again in response to the number of pilgrims visiting San Giovanni. Unfortunately, as it was built in the 1960s, it had little to please my more classical tastes. It does however posses a striking mosaic of Saint Pope John Paul II, a beautiful statue of Our Lady and the Child Jesus and houses the confessionals made available to pilgrims during their time there. Going to confession under the patronage of Padre Pio was a deeply significant spiritual experience which strengthened my commitment to a sacrament which has been a great source of solace to me in recent years.

Santa Maria della Grazie
Unfortunately, I only discovered my favourite church in the shrine complex on the last day. Originally dedicated to Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1529, it is the original church attached to the monastery in which Padre Pio would have heard confession (the confessional he used is on display there). It was small, intimate and very prayerful and proved to be the perfect spot to reflect on the the life, sufferings and message of Saint Padre Pio. 

Santa Maria degli Angeli
I am truly grateful for my quasi-pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotundo and I definitely intend to go back, hopefully for a longer period of time and perhaps in a more penitential manner. In the Year of Mercy, there could be few better patrons than Padre Pio; Pray, Hope and Don't Worry!


Born in Pietrelcina, Italy on May 25th 1887 to a deeply religious family, and given the name Francesco, Pio was thrust into spiritual battle from an early age. He regularly suffered physical and spiritual attacks from the devil but was able to find solace conversing with Jesus, Mary and his guardian angel. In 1903, at the age of 15 and with the blessing of his parents, he took the Habit of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin and selected the name of Pio in honour the patron saint of Pietrelcina, Saint Pius V.

In response to Pope Benedict XV's call for prayer to end World War I in 1918, Padre Pio offered himself as a sacrifice for peace. In August and September of that year, he received several visions of the crucified Christ from which he received the physical stigmata. For the next 50 years he would exercise his priestly ministry in San Giovanni Rotundo, becoming renown for his devotion to Mass, confession, guardian angels and the rosary, for his fortitude in the midst of immense physical and spiritual suffering and for a mystical union with Christ which granted him miraculous gifts. On occasion, he was able to be in two places at the same time (bilocation) whilst in the confessional he was granted the ability to see the true state of a penitent's soul. Padre Pio's physical suffering led him to establish homes for the relief of suffering whilst his spiritual suffering encouraged him to set up prayer groups to spiritually sustain the patients in their care.

As news of Padre Pio's unique gifts and charism spread, pilgrims flocked to San Giovanni in their hundreds of thousands and this forced the church to ascertain the veracity of his character and vocation. On June 9, 1931, the Feast of Corpus Christi, Padre Pio was ordered by the Holy See to refrain from all activities except the private celebration of Mass. Padre Pio humbly submitted to his superiors and eventually restored in all his priestly faculties. By the early 1960s, he was attracting pilgrims from across the world and they came in such numbers that a new church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, had to be built to accommodate them. By the time the church was completed, Padre Pio's always precarious health began to deteriorate. He died in the early hours of September 23rd 1968, shortly after making his confession and renewing his religious vows.

Following his death, Padre Pio's cult continued to grow; over six million pilgrims visit his shrine in San Giovanni every year. In 2004, an even bigger church, the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church, was opened to accommodate the influx. The small town is also home to one of the finest hospitals in Italy, constructed at his behest and paid for by donations made by pilgrims. 

Padre Pio was canonised in 2002 by Saint Pope John Paul II who named him "a living image of Christ suffering and risen". [2]

[1] Colossians 1:24 (Magnificat, September 2015, p330)
[2] Magnificat, September 2015, p331

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Out of the depths

Today, Twitter offered an inopportune reminder of the deplorable depths to which some which some liberal demagogues have sunk. Under the hash tag "shoutYourAbortion" women were encouraged to let the world know what a positive event the abortion of their unborn children had been in their lives.

I cannot begin to describe how disgusted the hash tag made me feel or how much I loathe an ideology which promotes such a callous and misguided approach to an incredibly sensitive issue.

I believe that every abortion ends the life of a human being and that it has the potential to irreparably damage the lives of the men and women involves. Abortion is an assault on the dignity of the human race and it denigrates every society in which it takes place. I understand that not everyone feels as strongly about abortion as I do but I cannot fathom how it could ever be considered something to "shout about". I thought that even the most liberal of protagonists would agree that abortion was at best a "necessary evil" but it seems that I was sadly mistaken. For some, it seems, it is something to take pride in.

Attempting to fathom the logic which underpins this grotesque trend has given me a headache; the only thread I could grasp as the the hashtag was retweeted in my timeline by those who wished to draw attention to its horrors was that it was somehow designed to give women the courage not to be ashamed of their abortions. There is however a radical difference between offering support and compassion in dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic ordeal and attempting to not only trivialise the event but re-brand it as positive life experience.

This particular brand of feminism is not only morally repugnant, it is also dangerous. Trying to convince society that abortion is a trivial procedure will do little to help those who struggle with remorse in the future. Nor will it hide the fact that it is a risky medical procedure which can have long lasting physical consequences.

Why is abortion such a corner stone to this particularly odious brand of militant feminism? It seems to be that it underpins their mantra of "bodily autonomy". Women need to be able to live life as they see fit, free of any consequences, particularly when it comes to sex. In doing so, they gain equality with men and share in that El Dorado of sexual autonomy.

The tenets of this philosophy have never made sense to me. If feminism truly is concerned with the "advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes", then it has to have worthy archetypes for men and women. It seems to me that the feminism responsible for this hash tag is attempting to gain equality for women with the lowest common denominator amongst men. Sex always has consequences, unitive and procreative, and to pretend otherwise is to foster a lie. Both men and women are called to bodily responsibility; a feminism which fails to recognise and accept that women are designed to bear children is not worthy of the name, just as a man who refuses to honour this fact is not a real man.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

By creating the human being man and woman, God gives personal dignity equally to the one and the other. Each of them, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. [1]

God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image ... God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. [2]

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2393
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2331

Saturday, 19 September 2015

I'll be back

After the last few days of disappointment in the gym, I wasn't too optimistic about my prospects for today's back session. As I arrived at the gym to a gridlocked car park, I wasn't even sure I'd be able to make it through the front door so when I eventually made my way to the bench area, I had rather low expectations.

I've never had a gym partner but today my schedule overlapped with the friend who recommended the routine to me in the first place so we performed the exercises together. It was great to have Stacy there to encourage me out of my gym funk and I am convinced I had a much better session today because it. All today's exercises were supersets so there were no opportunities for spotting each other but simply exchanging notes during rest periods improved the efficiency and quality of the workout.

As a routine, I thought today's exercises had a high degree of reliance on secondary muscle groups which might detract from the targeting of the back muscles. For example, close-gripped lat pulldowns place a lot of stress on the biceps whilst the dumbbell pull engages the chest more than the back. I also missed attempting dead lifts which I am finally beginning to make a little bit of progress on. Next time I perform this routine, I will try moving the wide grip lat pulldown and cable face pull superset to the start of the session because one of my major goals is to be able to complete fifteen pull ups. I found that by the time I got round to the wide grip lat pulldown I was quite tired so I had to perform it at a far lower weight than usual.

The only new exercise today was the one armed lat pulldown; I don't think I have the mechanics of the exercise quite right so it didn't feel particularly beneficial. I aim to go through the videos of all the exercises I struggled with during the week tomorrow so I will hopefully get some pointers on how to improve things.

Tomorrow is a rest day according to the routine but as I took a day off in the week and had a disappointing cardio week, I'm going to try an ab session followed by a 10k run. I'll probably throw in some bench presses as they continue to be a source of frustration to me. I'm a sucker for punishment.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Life gym; but not as we know it

Today was day five of the Erin Stern Elite workout and it was absolutely terrible. After day three's rather disappointing cardio session, I took a rest on day four because I didn't feel in the right frame of mind for the gym. I was late finishing work so I decided to cut my losses and go home and watch the football instead.

To make up for the missed day, I resolved to combine day four with day six's cardio session as I play football after work on Friday. I should have been attempting a back routine but as a friend is doing the same session tomorrow, I agreed to swap it for a chest and shoulder routine so that we could do the back session together.

Ever since I began using the gym, I have struggled to make any progress with upper body strength and I find it exceedingly frustrating. Today was one of the worst gym session I have ever had. I was well below even my usual inept bench press mark and I failed to make it anywhere near the personal best I set in the dumbbell shoulder press last time out. I ended the session rather deflated, wondering if it was worth all the time and effort.

Unfortunately, football didn't improve my mood either. Our usually competitive game was rather one sided, I received a dead leg five minutes into the game and we had less than 35 minutes playing time as someone had booked the pitch straight after us. I don't think I raised a sweat during the whole game so as a cardio exercise it was pretty pointless. If I hadn't received a dead leg, I would have gone for a run after it.

Everyone has bad gym sessions but knowing that doesn't make them any easier to accept. As things have gone so poorly, I've decided to add an extra session on Sunday with some chest, abs and cardio sessions. At least tomorrow is a new gym day...

Thursday, 17 September 2015

This vale of tears

Yesterday, the church commemorated The Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows or Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows). Following on from Monday's Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, Tuesday's memorial invites us to meditate on the sorrows which befell our Lady as a result of her unfailing obedience to God's will and her love for her Son. Her "Fiat" at the annunciation would ultimately lead her to the foot of the Cross.

As St Alphonsus de Liguori suggests that whilst "the martyrs endured their torments in their bodies; Mary suffered Hers in Her soul.” [1] The theme of martyrdom is likewise taken up by St Antoninus who says of Our Lady of Sorrows:

“While other martyrs suffered by sacrificing their own lives, the Blessed Virgin suffered by sacrificing Her Son’s life – a life that She loved far more than Her own; so that She not only suffered in Her soul all that Her Son endured in His body, but moreover the sight of Her Son’s torments brought more grief to Her heart than if She had endured them all in Her own person." [2]

It is the maternal bond that Mary had with Jesus as sorrowful mother which is the key to understanding the meaning of this devotion. Mary shared in Jesus' suffering in a unique way and as a consequence, she has a unique share in its ultimate end, the Resurrection. From the Cross Jesus gives Mary to us as a dying gift where he says "Behold, your Mother". Mary's compassion as Sorrowful Mother can therefore be a source of strength for us when we feel afflicted by our own suffering and sorrow. Contemplating the depths of these sorrows can bring us closer to their subject, namely the person of Jesus Christ.

One of the great maxims of Faith comes to us from St Anselm who was reflecting on Saint Augustine when he said "I believe that I may understand" (credo ut intelligam). The point each was making is that without Faith, some tenants of Christian belief and practice are beyond comprehension. For some, suffering and the problem of evil are an impenetrable barrier to belief whilst for others they begin to erode the foundations of Faith to such a degree that it eventually collapses.

At present, as I look at the suffering and sorrows of family, friends and colleagues, I feel a little under siege. I find myself questioning its purpose and how God can allow such apparent injustices to occur on his watch. Why aren't my prayers good enough? Why has nothing changed? Sometimes I lose heart and become angry with God; other times I am reminded by a Psalm or a reading I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to feel this way. Ultimately, I am left with the notion that the answer, if it is to be found, exists only with Christ, crucified on the Cross, and his Mother, sorrowful and compassionate at its foot. Credo ut intelligam.

Stabat Mater

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ's dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother's pain untold?

For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:

She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.

Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:

Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.

Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory;

While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

One step forward, one step back

In general, I'm a poor sleeper. It usually takes me hours to drift off to sleep and I rarely wake up feeling refreshed and raring to go. This is problematic for frequent gym use as good sleep is essential for muscle growth and healing.

Erin has some great advice for deciding if you need a break or not which resolves around the answers to six questions [1]:


Recently, I'd been enjoying much better sleep but that ended last night as I was agitated and couldn't get my mind to settle. It's possible that aches from the first two days of the new routine but I can't be sure.

Day three of Erin Stern's Elite workout is dedicated to cardio and abs. I was keen to complete today's session as I'm still carrying some extra holiday weight but when the time came to make my way to the gym, I felt over tired and a little sick. I walked over hoping a bit of fresh air would make me fell better but I didn't feel well enough to hammer the treadmill. I therefore decided to try 5k at a pace I usually wouldn't have any problem with.

Though I wasn't comfortable during the run, I did manage to complete it. After a lengthy rest, I completed the core circuit with low weights just to try the movements.
When I first started using the gym, one of my goals was to run 10k in under 45 minutes. From time to time I would make progress, managing to get under 50 minutes but I would always end up with an injury (ankle, knee, achillies) which meant I would have to start again. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll ever get close to my goal now as I have developed a rather annoying habit where I trigger a panic attack if I become aware of heavy breathing through my nose. I don't think it's an actual physical issue (I did have a check up at the doctors to be sure) so until I manage to forget about it or overcome it mentally, I have to be careful about how far I push myself. It's incredibly frustrating but I'm thankful it's not put a complete end to my cardio and football sessions.


Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Leg Day: Joining the Ministry of Funny Walks

Today was day two of my new gym routine and I started my day with a session at the Swansea University Osteopathic Clinic [1] which is helping me with my shoulder injury and lower back pain. I highly recommend the service as I came out feeling a lot freer in movement and confident in the advice I'd been given. 

I made my way to the gym at 4:30pm aware that today's session would bring me up against my old nemesis, legs. I'm not the only person approaches leg day with dread though recent improvements have given me more confidence in doing major exercises like squats. That won't stop me from joining the ministry of funny walks tomorrow.

Today's routine featured something I'd never done before: Plyometrics. The theory behind this type of exercise is that rapid and repeated stretching and contracting of the muscle will lead to increases in power. In today's workout, this consisted of bodyweight jumping and leaping movements. I'd never performed any of these exercises so I enjoyed attempting 10 reps of box jumps, 180 jumps, tuck jumps, depth jumps and dynamic step ups. I thought I'd done quite well until I re-read the plan and released I had to complete 3 sets. By the end I was absolutely dripping with sweat and absolutely shattered!

After completing the plyometric circuit, I was on more familiar ground with squats and a supersets of good mornings and calf raises. Though I have done good mornings in the past, I'm not particularly comfortable performing them as I don't like the pressure the bar exerts on my neck. I've tried holding the bar lower down but I still can't seem to get comfortable.

The final superset was supposed to be leg extensions and reverse hyperextension but as we lacked the equipment for the latter, I performed leg curls instead.

Again, I very much enjoyed today's session, particularly as plyometric exercises are new to me. I really felt I was working hard by the time I got to my third set of squats and was a little concerned at one point I wouldn't be able to complete the full 5 sets. In retrospect, I took my foot off the gas for the remaining exercises and my lack of ease with the good mornings may been the trigger for that.

Having looked after my physical health, I made my way to Mass to tend to my spiritual needs and followed that by a nice pork dinner. I've now sat down to watch the football with protein shake and a handful of nuts. My shoulders are just starting to ache a little after yesterday's session. Today was a good day.


Monday, 14 September 2015

A break from the old routine

On returning to the gym after a three week absence (during which I managed to put on an extra 3 kilograms largely a result of consuming copious amounts of pasta, pizza and beer whilst on holiday in Sicily), I thoroughly expected to struggle in every aspect of my workout. Though this was true for a few exercises (my chest press is exceedingly poor) and I noticed a general reduction in stamina, I actually managed to set a few personal bests.

Despite this pleasant surprise, I've decided to change my routine as I've been following it for a while. I'm hoping that in doing so, I may be able to make more progress in areas where I've been struggling for months.

On the advice of a friend who has caught the gym bug and has made some fantastic progress, I've decided to try Erin Stern's Elite 4 week plan from [1] Today was my first session with the new routine and I very much enjoyed it. Day one is shoulders and arms [2] and it contained a number of exercises which I'd never performed before:

Push Jerks
Though I'm used to doing seated shoulder presses with dumbbells, I'd never used my legs to augment the exercise. I managed to do the first five reps at 35kg but found that on the second set, my lower back couldn't handle the same weight again. I therefore dropped it down to 30kg.

Cable Rear Delts Flyes
These were great fun and I managed to complete four sets at 5kg. I'll definitely go higher next week.

Front Cable Raises
I'm used to doing dumbbell raises but there was something about the cable variation which made them more difficult. I have a long standing right shoulder injury which may have inhibited the exercise further. Though I have managed 12.5kg front raises in the past, I only managed 2.5kg on the cables.

Drag Curls
The drag curl appears to place more stress on the forearms than the regular curl so I found this quite difficult. I started off at 20kg but dropped it to 15kg when I was struggled to complete the full 10 reps.

Plank to pull up and diamond push ups
I'd never performed either of these exercises and I struggled to complete even one rep of each so I decided to replace them with a cable row and close grip bench press. My cable row is also rather poor and given the lower back weakness I experienced in the Push Jerk, it's definitely something I need to try and address.

Ab roller
This was another exercise that I couldn't complete, again it appears because my back is too weak.

I'm looking forward to trying new exercises tomorrow. Wish me luck; it's leg day!