The gift of time

The gift of time

23 April 2018

This Easter, I’ve received an unexpected gift: the gift of time. Being tired of holidays into the future, I decided to revisit my past. So I spent a day wandering through the halls and amphitheatres of my old university. A lot of it has changed, perhaps for the better — there are vending machines in the corridors now, and pretty paintings on the walls. A lot of posters in foreign languages. And a new bookshop. But to me, what hasn’t changed is even more special. The air in some big amphitheatres. The smell of wood. The silence. The sense of something hanging in the air — it could be unspoken words, or a shared understanding, or unfinished sentences at the end of lectures. Whatever it is, it lingers behind in classrooms after everyone has rushed out, and it reverberates into a memory theatre, when you return, retracing your steps from many years back. It’s like time has stood still, in these amphitheatres. The gift of time.

So now when I am back from holiday and we resume our philosophy sessions, I mention Carlo Rovelli’s recent book, The Order of Time, to my students. And we debate the impact that space has on it, and whether either has any kind of reality to it. We do this using reasoning and argumentation, precise articulations. Next time, we should include examples of situations where space and time have become relative (or outright absent), in our own life experience. Not all philosophy happens in texts, words, and lines of arguments.

Advent thoughts

Advent thoughts

15 December 2016

Sam Wells at last Advent Sunday at St Martin-in-the-Fields ended his sermon thus:
“The greatest gift under the Tree is often unopened: it is Christ himself”.
This was something to take away for the remainder of the Advent period — and beyond.
Perusing on the awful tube yesterday morning the volume of Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits (Michael Harter SJ Ed.), Paul’s eyes alighted on this:


The Spiritual Exercises, #23

All the things in this world are gifts of God,
presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return of love more readily.

As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
insofar as they help us develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the centre of our lives,
they displace God
and so hinder our growth toward our goal.

In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
and are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.

(St. Ignatius Loyola as paraphrased by David L. Fleming, SJ)

… So open the oft unopened (including the heart) as Mary found the tomb in the garden and mistook the Risen Christ as the gardener. He was indeed waiting at the door covered in weeds after years of closure. Ready to plant seeds in tended soil that will bear all fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Paul Collins)

May this Advent bring us the patience to wait, the wisdom to choose, and the humility to receive His blessing. Peace and joy to all.

Heidegger in the fields of Eastern Europe

Heidegger in the fields of Eastern Europe

20 June 2016

There are many surprises amongst the exhibits at the New Tate Modern, ranging from soap bubbles and sculptures made of couscous to blank walls and capsules to lie in; what they all have in common is a certain extravaganza – one way or the other, they push the boundaries of what we call modern ever further and further. To me, the real surprise is a gaze into the past. An exhibition by the Romanian artist Ana Lupas brings together images and installations of items and materials from rural Transylvania, as it was half a century ago: wheat, cotton, wood and clay are the main characters in a display of ochre and grey.

It has taken the artist and her team over forty years and several alterations to reach this stage in her project, titled The Solemn Process. Initially focused on the annual production of large wheat wreaths (produced in the countryside by a group of villagers), the project soon became a restoration project, because the original structures started to deteriorate due to the vulnerability of the main material used – wheat. So the wreaths had to be encased in metal structures, in order to be preserved.

This is what we can see now, in the Switch House building – a display of large, grey structures, cold on the outside, but warm on the inside, as they cradle forty-year old wheat wreaths from the Romanian countryside half a century ago. From a long-forgotten land somewhere ‘beyond the woods’ (the name comes from Latin ‘trans’ and ‘silva’, forest), crushed by the horrors of the communist regime, Transylvania suddenly shows itself as a mirific landscape and home to warm, self-sufficient and family-oriented people. The range of utensils from the photographs on display would certainly inspire Heidegger to write another volume on the Origin of Art; the wheat wreaths would be right up there, next to Van Gogh’s peasant shoes. But he might keep the title, as there is certainly solemnity in this process of recapturing the past, through a combination of what is ‘ready-to-hand (the equipment – metal, boards, camera) and the ‘presence-at-hand’ that pertains to the human being. A whole new world opens up between the beholder and a few instruments from the past.

Heidegger in the fields of Eastern Europe

Making a good start

Making a good start

21 March 2016

The first day of Spring in the Northern hemisphere. This literally means ‘equal night’ (in Latin). From now on, days are to become longer, and warmer, and hopefully spiritually richer, too – as we get closer to Easter time.

A good time to remember an old monastic saying – ‘make a good start, in order that you reach a good end’. What the wise sages in the Orthodox tradition would do, for instance, is try to become more humble and inward-looking, more focused on that, which lasts (i.e. one’s soul), than on the ephemeral. In practice, this amounts to a regime of prayer and work – where the latter entails certain tasks, assigned by one’s spiritual master. Their purpose is to discipline the soul, rather than the body, with a view to achieving more humility and ‘good spirit’, rather than satisfy any particular material needs.

In some of the traditional societies where this monastic practice exists, people give each other symbolic gifts, to mark the start of the Spring. One such typical token is a small object of design, made of red and white thread – called a ‘mărțisor’, which is also the old folk name for March, the first month of Spring, and for a flowering plant in the rose family. People give this as a talisman to friends and family, so they will be healthy and happy throughout the year. Although without an explicitly religious meaning attached to it, the token has a deeper spiritual value, in that it symbolises purity and light (the white) combined with life, fertility or regeneration (the red). Some attribute this to the Roman tradition (where Mars was the god of war and agriculture), or to the older, Dacian culture, where March was the beginning of the year. Either way, in societies where this is a practice, people use the token as a symbol of good wishes, at the start of a new season and for the rest of the year. The idea of making a gift – rather than writing a card, for instance – is also deeply spiritual, because it entails a different type of communication, possibly more effective than the linguistic one.

Let us hope we can find new ways of making a good start, this March, whatever our respective endeavours might be.