Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's a Cat's Life!

"Hello. My Dad (Matt) gave me permission to write on his esteemed blog. Well, I actually agreed to do this to add some style to a pretty drab blog. I don't know much about blogs, but there is only one item of food/play on this thing (Jeffrey the Hamster) so its dull to me.

"I'm a year and a half old, which is pretty much a teenager in cat terms. Also, I'm a house cat. This is okay with me, since I get daily cat treats and a perpetual supply of cat crunchies... yumm... and all the Whiskers 'Oh so meaty/fishy' I could ever want. On occasion, my parents try to fob me off with cheap tinned cat food - but I'm not stupid, or desperate. I'm a prime specimen.

"Now a particularly sensitive issue with me is my sister, Leia, who I spent the first year of my life with. We were allowed outside whenever we wanted, although my parents insisted on getting rid of my manhood first. Oh well, it was worth it to hang around with the local alley cats. But one Sunday morning she was skuttling across the road after me, and wasn't quick enough. A big moving metal thing hit her. Silly girl. I was pretty upset, and spent a whole day growling and not eating; thinking that this might persuade my parents to bring her back to life, but they didn't seem to be able to oblige.
"I'm still good friends with 'The Don' who runs this neighbourhood, but only see him when my parents take me out on the lead. Still, I get free run on the washing line, and I'd like to emphasise that I LEAD THEM and not the other way around.

"During my short but interesting life, I have visited Stourport where my Mum's parents live. However, some other cats live there, and run the house, so I had to resign myself to second fiddle. Which is not my style. I'm much more comfortable in Nottingham, where my Dad is from. There, at his Mum's house, I'm in charge, and get to sleep on whichever bed I like.
I have also been to Scotland which was wonderful. I got the full attention of 4 adults, although most of my time was spent supervising them in the garden and making sure they tickled my belly on a regular basis to demonstrate their submission to me. I even got to go on the beach, but there wasn't much to eat there except crabs. I prefer gormet shrimps.
"Well, I better leave it there. Here are some pictures of me from today. I gave my parents a surprise when they came downstairs this morning to see what I'd done to the light in my study. I was using it for a trapeze but it wasn't strong enough. Dad has put a new one up now so hopefully that'll be more suitable. I'm very proud, as you can see from the picture, of my handiwork. In fact, I think it is a work of art. My parents would have punished me for being so naughty, but they were too busy laughing at what I'd done to be angry! Humans are strange. But I'm not complaining, because their presence means I don't have to work for my next meal. Except that pesky Jeffrey the Hamster... one day... Oh well, all my best wishes to you all, and I would appreciate any cat nip you have spare. Au Revoir!"

Banner Trouble

I noticed there was some trouble loading up the original Banner picture at the top of the page. I am unsure what the cause of this was, but I have made a temporary measure change. Sorry about that!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Novena for you Readers!

The intentions of Lacrimarum Valle readers have been included in the Novena of Masses offered at the National Shrine of Our Lady, Walsingham.

1st - 9th December 2006

Celebrant: Fr. Noel Wynn SM

My Rosary Making

One of my few talents is the ability to make wire Rosaries. I learnt this skill from my Great Uncle Richard, who was a carpenter and apprentice of Robert 'Mousey' Thompson of North Yorkshire. He, in turn, learnt this skill from a Dominican monk - and it is the supposedly 'traditional' way of making Rosaries (although, of course, I am open to artistic license myself).

Below is an arrangement of some of the works I have to hand, along with the tools and materials which I use:

On the display board you can see the large black rosary which I have just made this weekend for a friend at church. This is made simply, and strongly, with black oval wood beads. It includes a Germoglio brass Benedictine crucifix. Very nice, but long (hanging 85cm)! Hopefully my friend will like it.

The small chaplet hanging in the middle is a Rosary 'decade' which is designed to slip around the wrist and is sufficient to say the Rosary whilst on the move. It is very strong and durable, with natural wood 10mm beads and thick wire that I often obtain from paperclips. For the Pater Noster bead I usually use a 15mm round bead with a cross carved on it, but in this case I used an attractive diamond flat wood bead made by my Great Uncle.

And for something a little more fancy, here is the Rosary I made for my wife:

This is made from small 8mm oval olive wood beads exported from bethlehem. The wire is much thinner, but the links also smaller and quite strong. The centre piece is the divine mercy. I was taught not to use the 3-way centre pieces, but some prefer having them.

My next project, coming on well (and visible around the edge of the first picture) is a full size, 15 decade Rosary, designed purely to adorn a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am making it to commemorate the 10th anniversary of my older brother's death. I am making it with 10mm round olive wood beads, brass links, with a golden miraculous medal centre-piece and Benedictine crucifix. I hope to also include a medal with his name carved on. I also hope to have it adorn a statue in an Oxford church, where he died whilst at University. Perhaps St. Benet's Hall, where he lived, or the Oratory Church just nearby.

I tend to make the wrist 'decades' quite quickly - maybe in an hour - and who knows, if you want one, we may be able to arrange something! The best thing is to try and cross my path, and I never charge for them either. Pax Christi!

Manor Farm Barn with Janie

This is an advert for you to come and stay at Jane Davidson-Houston's wonderful Bed & Breakfast next time you decide to visit the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham! Janie lives in Tatterford, which is a small village 15 minutes drive away. Here is the review in Alistair Sawday's 'Special Places to Stay' (although Janie no longer pays the subscription because it failed to attract business from this source):
Extraordinarily kind hosts - who really enjoy having people to stay in their light, bright, 200-year-old-barn / smithy with its cosy country feel. Eat together in the farmhouse kitchen (Aga, candles above the table, dried flowers on the beams), then retire to the sitting room (logs in the grate, rugs on boards). Bedrooms are fun and informal, the quietest up in the roof. Outside are wild flowers, free-range hens and home-grown veg and fruit - expect delicious food. Jane's an imaginative cook, as well as a painter, and there's plenty to inspire artists with Walsingham close by. Birdwatching and bicycling too!

What this review doesn't mention is the wonderful air of holiness! Janie is certainly very Catholic, even though her husband is a staunch Anglican - and there are all sorts of books and devotional material scattered around... even a statue of Our Lady in what could almost be a chapel next to the kitchen, which also contains her religious library and a piano. People have even hung various rosaries onto this statue, as countless extend their pilgrimage into their place of board. Janie is very accomodating, although gets booked up quite quickly, and is completely full for the annual Youth 2000 pilgrimage during the August bank holiday, when she has all the musicians to stay!

So come to Walsingham and stay with Janie; and you'll have the most wonderful pilgrimage to a most wonderful place. I asked many questions when I first went - and God has unceasingly shown me the answers.

Jane (and Michael) Davidson-Houston
Manor Farm Barn
Nr Fakenham
NR21 7AZ
01485 528393

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Christ the King

Today I celebrated the feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ for the second time in as many months! To see my reflections on this wonderful feast, click on Jesus!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

St. Catherine of Alexandria

On Saturday (I am backdating) we went to the noon mass at the slipper chapel shrine in Walsingham. Fortunately it was for a wonderful saint, who the slipper chapel is dedicated to (you can see her on the Gospel side of the reredos on my previous post). The famous firework, the 'Catherine Wheel' is even named after her, which she was martyred by, and often depicted with. I'm not really sure how it worked. Here is a picture of Fr. Noel Wynn preaching on the subject:

He made the point that political correctness even runs into the Church, since after Vatican II her feast day was removed because of doubt in her historical authenticity! Luckily in the new millenium it was reinstated and now the wonderful saint, patron of pilgrims, can be suitably celebrated. It is well worth going to the Shrine mass at the weekend, because they seem to reverently celebrate with incense, choir (sometimes Latin Gloria, Credo, Agnus Dei etc.) and the deacon was even wearing a dalmatic (just seen sitting behind the altar in the picture above). Also in the picture above you can just see the tabernacle on the right hand side - which although not central in the sanctuary how I like it, is nevertheless prominent.

The Chapel of Reconciliation was built in 1980 for the large number of pilgrims previously using an outdoor altar (still incorporated into the existing structure with the panelling behind the sanctuary opening up to give a window to the outside if numbers exceed the chapel's capacity). The style of the chapel is actually derived from a typical Norfolk barn (make of that what you will) with a wooden roof and steel beams supporting it. This actually made me feel very secure as I heard the wintry storm blowing outside!

My real joy comes in visiting the beautiful slipper chapel. I always have something to bring before Our Lady of Walsingham. This time it was immense thanksgiving at the gift of new life now growing in Wendy, and petition for a safe delivery! It was through fervent prayers to Our Lady there, earlier this year, that enabled this to come to pass. The Blessed Virgin Mary will not let you down!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Our Lady of Walsingham

This weekend I will be away with my wife, at the national shrine of Our Lady - Walsingham. This part of the country is a wonderful place, and we really enjoy staying with my mum's cousin Janie, who runs a Bed and Breakfast in Tatterford.

Along with the wonderful statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Slipper Chapel, is this beautiful altar. Mass is, of course, said in the correct orientation versus Deus ad orientem presumably because it is too small a chapel to renovate to modern specifications. Next door is the Chapel of Reconciliation where many of the larger shrine masses are said, and is likely to be where we will go to mass on Saturday.

Walsingham is a very interesting place, which has a long and varied history. Of interest is the state of Anglicanism there, which seems to be very high if one judges from their Shrine in Little Walsingham just opposite the site of the original abbey (of which now remains only ruins). Here they have built a replica of the house of Nazareth, with a replica of the original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham based on the one destroyed by Henry VIII:

So I won't be blogging this weekend but will have a novena said for all the readers of Lacrimarum Valle!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Prayer to St. Joseph

Here is a prayer which I keep in my wallet, written by Pope St. Pius X:
O Glorious Saint Joseph, model of all who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously by placing love of duty above my inclinations; to gratefully and joyously deem it an honor to employ and to develop by labor the gifts I have received from God, to work methodically, peacefully, and in moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from it through weariness or difficulty to work; above all, with purity of intention and unselfishness, having unceasingly before my eyes death and the account I have to render of time lost, talents unused, good not done, and vain complacency in success, so baneful to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all to imitate thee, O patriarch Saint Joseph! This shall be my motto for life and eternity. Amen.
Isn't it just wonderful? I looked at it today and it gave me such comfort. I have an important devotion to St. Joseph because he takes care of three important aspects to me: Fatherhood; Working; and Patron to the Church (which I constantly worry about!)

Vatican II Renewal: Myth or Reality?

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending the first in a series of Advent talks about two papal encyclicals. The first was on Deus Caritas Est (Pope Benedict's encyclical "God is Love"). First up was a woman who gave a short presentation on human sexuality and basically seemed to infer that Eros had at last been acknowledged as a beautiful thing, "in relationships or marriages". But I wanted to reflect rather on what the main speaker, Fr. David Keniry, talked about.

Basically he used the theme of Gods descending love on humanity to highlight the fact it is the Holy Spirit which is this love. Apparently, the Catholic Church has always known the details, but up until Vatican II it didn't live it or feel it. I think he said he was a seminarian around the time of the great 'renewal' when suddenly, after not truly living his faith, he felt the Holy Spirit at last. And this was a renewal which came from outside the Church. In fact, I'd be inclined to say he was one of the priests who received the 'baptism of the Holy Spirit' through laying on of hands by protestant pastors.

I'm no fan of the charismatic movement, in or outside the Church. Its not just because of the music they play, or the way they worship, but the theology which underpins all of it. Fr. Keniry emphasised that when he listened to the first charismatic speakers he was impressed because he couldn't theologically object to anything they said. I would be inclined, however, to want the full picture of Catholicism - to embrace it in its full beauty. Having been to confession with a charismatic priest in the past, I came away feeling like there really is no such thing as sin, and not to be so hard on myself.

I was quite taken aback that all the nodding of heads in the audience were old people. We were the youngest in the room, but Fr. Keniry made claims that it is through the charismatic renewal that young people are becoming connected with the Mass. Experiences differ, but I felt like he was forcing his experiences on us, rather than talking about the subject matter at hand. His only justification for Vatican II giving the go-ahead to the charismatics was the term "charisms" used in the document Lumen Gentium. In any case, Deus Caritas Est has nothing to do with all this, and he was certainly going off track.

So, why do people talk about the Second Vatican Council as a time of 'great renewal', usually using personal anecdotes? To me we seem to have lost so much, especially in architecture and liturgy - but what have we gained? It is very difficult for me to comment on this because I am still discerning the true purpose of Vatican II in the life of the Church, and have only recent experience of Catholicism. But I've been pointed to an excellent article on Seattle Catholic, which tries to be objective about this subject. Take a look and see what you think.

New Movie Posters

Look, I do have other interests apart from Catholicism and Spiderman - but I can't think of any at the moment! Oh - hang on here's another:

Yes, if you too are a child of the 80s you are likely to have a passion for Transformers. Next year a live action film will be released, directed by action-movie veteran Michael Bay. If you can't wait for that there is also a 20th anniversary DVD of the classic animated movie, which is still a great watch even to this day. Out now on Region 1 DVD!

So there are two things coming in 2007 that I'm excited about (in addition to my daughter)!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Dark Night of the Soul

Often in the past I have been inclined towards depression, but over the last few years have felt myself immune to any sort of low mood or melancholy simply because things have been going so well. However, these change in moods, which are like changing winds, are not always related to personal, psychological or social factors.

Lately, unfortunately, I have found myself plodding along with tiredness and a lack of motivation. At times I have been quite hard on myself, for failing to respond to demands and stress by increasing my effort. These are early signs in me of depression rearing its ugly head, and on this occasion I decided to consult the doctor about it, as it was beginning to affect my studies. The doctor dealt with me excellently, and helped me to realise that my mood was the real influence. Anti-depressant medication is often frowned upon, and indeed in the past I have avoided taking it for fear of not facing up to my problems or resolving the real issues. Medication is only really indicated for moderate or severe depression, and since I appear only mildly depressed it was not my initial thought. However, the doctor quickly convinced me that at this point in my life I really can't afford to be deteriorating or messing around waiting for my mood to improve.

I'm pleased to say that I am already feeling hugely better, after only 2 weeks on medication. The best thing is I am able to have insight into my thoughts and feelings. The fact is, I am so happy in my life, and so excited about my future. This is what makes depression, for me, a very unexpected and unusual dilemma. I find it helpful to reflect on it in a spiritual way, as with all other aspects of my life - and hopefully these reflections will serve of some interest to my readers.

Many Christian denominations fall at the first hurdle by thinking Jesus' Gospel is always that: 'Good News', and derive a health and wealth message to be a result of personal faith and commitment. The fact is, Jesus' message often runs counter to this. Rather than expecting consolation and joy throughout our pilgrimage on earth, we are called to follow Jesus by taking up our crosses every day for him. How pure is a faith that expects temporal happiness and benefit, rather than looking to heaven for paradise? More importantly, how pure is a faith that hasn't been tested? We should always pray for the grace to resign ourselves only to God's will: to be content with whatever trials or blessings He sends our ways.

The fact is, since I have returned to faith (about 3 years ago) I have been so blissfully happy and almost ecstatic at the graces and blessings I have in God. I may not always have been grateful enough to God - but now I have a chance to reflect on why I practice my faith at all. Faith is not just a feeling or a psychological crutch; it is determination in a covenant between us and God. Our Heavenly father is constantly reaching out to us, sustaining us and nourishing us with the body of his only Son. Our response to God, within this giving of persons, must be surrender and sacrificial love. We must offer our whole self, no matter what we feel or think about ourselves, and allow God to sanctify and transform us with his divine life. I'm not losing my faith, but should I ever be in that position I resolve to continue praying, receiving the sacraments, and striving to be truly Christian because that is the direction faith must take us.

Those who are wise and have been well instructed in the spiritual life rise above these changing moods, ignoring their inner feelings and on what side the wind of instability blows, so long as the direction of their souls advances towards their desired goal. Thus they can remain stable and unshaken through many changing events, always directing their intention towards Me.
The Imitation of Christ - Thomas A Kempis

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Verdi's Rigoletto Opera

Yesterday we were treated, by my kind mother, to a night of Italian opera at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. The production was by Opera North, and consisted of a contemporary setting to Verdi's 19th Century opera. On the right is a picture from the telegraph of Rigoletto in action. Of course this seemed quite odd, as his character was Il Duca's "henchman" rather than the jester as described in the classic synopsis of the story. In any case, this was an excellent introduction for me into the world of opera, and I was particularly impressed with the way subtitles were available on plasma screens either side of the stage to make it possible for me to follow the dialogue. It was truly beautiful music, and from where we were sitting (upper circle) we could also see the orchestra pit!

My fascination with Giuseppe Verdi's music began when my wife and I dropped by the Birmingham Symphony Hall and took advantage of a last minute booking of Verdi's Requiem which I was bowled over by. It was such a powerful rendition of Dies Irae, even if too operatic and not liturgically suitable! This was also one of the first times I realised the Mass had such a rich cultural history, and that since we've had Mass in the vernacular this fact has largely escaped the younger generation. When my mother remarked, at last night's opera (paraphrase), "It's better to have Rigoletto subtitled than the alternative of re-writing it into English, in a similar way to foreign films" I replied, "very much like the Latin Mass!"

But before I digress I should really comment on how I was affected by the story and passion of the opera. Well, the story seemed to revolve around a curse on Rigoletto; instituted by the wronged Monterone (whose entrance was spectacular), whose daughter had been seduced by Il Duca (the Duke, Rigoletto's master). When Rigoletto is also wronged in a similar way, having his own daughter seduced, it falls on him to try and fulfill the curse by avenging Il Duca and plotting his death. This tragically backfires on Rigoletto, and for me goes to show that justice can only be dispensed by God Almighty! For me, an upcoming father to a lovely little daughter, it was particularly poignant to see the way Rigoletto was so protective over his daughter, trying to preserve her dignity and honour, in the face of the cruel outside world; to see his daughter then succumb to Il Duca's slimy charms! How painful that must be. Needless to say, children can be brought so far, but must eventually make their own decisions and know that support will always be near.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

St. Blogs Parish R.I.P?

Further to continuous parish closures across the Catholic world, the latest closure is the most baffling. Rather than having to close due to a lack of parishioners, St. Blogs Parish (ringsurf) is forced to consider closure because of a proliferation of 'spam' applicants to join the community.

I found this out to my disappointment when I queried why my application had failed to be approved. Luckily I have found an alternative means of joining the St. Blogs community.

It is unprecendented that a parish be inundated with potential parishioners who are neither interested, nor indeed real people at all. Oh, well - the faithful blogs who make up the strongest part of the community will live on regardless! In Pax Christi!!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Better Blogger Beta!

I have now upgraded to Blogger beta, with the simply irresistible archive on the side bar! I also got rid of the pop-up comments due to incompatibility with Mozilla Firefox (which I prefer to use now).

With a few hacks I also managed, at long last, to provide a decent banner at the top. What does everyone think?

The Aesthetics of the Mass

For some time I have read with interest a lot of literature comparing the liturgy of the old, Tridentine Rite, with that of the new Rite which is said throughout the Western Catholic Church. It didn't take much convincing me to see the important theological considerations, of which the Ottaviani Intervention has to be the most prophetic (written in 1969).

However, since I have been attending the Old Rite of Mass there is something else which has grabbed me: the form or aesthetics of the Mass. Fr. Tim Finigan has just advertised a book which seems to draw attention to this aspect of the mass, and I personally think it is this distinction which divides opinion.

Much has been said of the change towards a 'horizontal' understanding of the Mass; where emphasis is placed on the community gathered rather than a worship directed towards God. This is clearly evident in the way the priest, in most churches, now celebrates the Holy Sacrifice versus populum, facing the people. Furthermore, many modern churches are now designed so that the community is arranged in a circle around the altar in an attempt to make the celebration more inclusive and community centred. These aesthetics are clearly recognisable, but what of the churches that celebrate the new mass in a more traditional manner?
From the picture above (in an old low mass setting), and the picture below (a high mass in the new Rite), I hope to illustrate the one clear distinction between the old mass and a highly reverent modern mass: The way the 'Liturgy of the Word' is presented.

Picture courtesy of Semper Fi Catholic

This is something which has always struck me, but doesn't seem to get commented upon. The fact that the two parts of the mass now have these different names; The Liturgy of the Word, and The Liturgy of the Eucharist, displays a rupture which is evident mainly in the manner in which these two are performed: One from the pulpit, and the other from the altar. This serves to separate the mass into two parallel ideas: That God's word is present in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist independently from one another. Pope John Paul II put it like this, in his apostolic letter Mane Nobiscum Domine:
The Eucharist is light above all because at every Mass the liturgy of the Word of God precedes the liturgy of the Eucharist in the unity of the two "tables", the table of the Word and the table of the Bread.
Now, John Paul II was of course light years ahead of me in both holiness and knowledge, so I'm not going to try and critique what he's saying. But it is evident that the two parts of the mass are set aside each other, supposedly having equal dignity as "two tables".

In the Old Mass, I would argue that this unity is preserved better because the Epistle and Gospel are both said from the altar. I realise the situation is slightly different in a High Mass (which I haven't yet had the fortune of attending), but to see the altar so empty and neglected throughout the first half of a new mass is quite disconcerting now that I have seen the other side. Why is it that, in the new mass, the readings have to be conducted from a pulpit? Even in churches where they preserve the ad orientem direction of worship, we have a change of emphasis during the liturgy of the word whereby the thrust of the worship is towards the congregation, and no longer orientated towards God.

Simply put, the Old Mass, with its integration of the two halves of the liturgy, fills me with joy and satisfaction. The sight of the Missal being transferred from the Epistle side to the Gospel side, for me, is of profound beauty and symmetry in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Moreover, the fact that it is purely the priest who offers to God these sacred readings from Scripture, put me in no doubt that the Mass is orientated solely towards God, in the person of Christ. A rupture in the Mass, such as we now have, results in such displays as "Liturgy of the Word followed by Holy Communion" which doesn't even require a priest to be present. It is little wonder that vocations have plummeted when faced with the way the priesthood is being presented in the new Mass.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Pope Blesses Birmingham Students!

On Thursday morning, 9th November, our University's Chaplain, Fr. Julian Green, met the Pope in a general audience at the Vatican. This was the culmination of a 3-day conference "Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses." Fr. Julian was responsible for organising the 'Behold the Lamb' Eucharistic Conference in Birmingham in July 2005. Here is his account of his meeting from this week's bulletin:

Having met the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI this week in Rome, I can’t help but have a go at putting one of the photos on the bulletin. You might notice that the Pope looks a bit taller than I do. That’s because he’s cheating and standing on a step. But heh. He’s the Pope. So he can get away with it. He also gets away with wearing bright red shoes (I want some!)

I make no apologies. I’m a great supporter of the Pope. Not because of anything particular he says or does. Just because he is our Holy Father. One of my greatest regrets in life is that I never met his great predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Think of the immense task the Pope has, and pray for him each day. While most other 79 year olds are retired and putting their feet up, he has the cares and worries of the whole Church on his shoulders. And yet he is given strength by God to be an inspiration and a light to people throughout the world.

When you meet the Pope you get about 10 seconds with him. So you have to say what you want to say. I told him the students of Birmingham University send him their best wishes. He told me to send you his blessings and greetings. You can’t get much better than that in 10 seconds.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Spiderman 3 Trailer

A friend tipped me off about the new Spiderman 3 trailer. I love Spideman, and here he is:

My Medical Elective in South Africa

Here follows an elective report I wrote for Healthserve, a christian mission organisation which gave me a small scholarship towards my elective placement in South Africa. This was written over a year ago, so my outlook on certain things may have changed - but remains a good account of my time there.

I was really inspired after attending a CMF electives day, to undertake an elective in a rural, third world area. South Africa was an obvious choice for me because I was born there and feel a certain connection to the country. It would have been easier, of course, to pick a big hospital in one of the cities to work at. I would have certainly seen a different side of South Africa if I had, one my relatives would have been more comfortable with. The area I was working in, at Manguzi Hospital, was comprised almost entirely of Zulus – an area largely forgotten about in the apartheid era. Consequently there was an abundance of poverty-related problems, and the area was largely rural and undeveloped. South Africa is a bipolar country, with opportunities and industry in developed areas; starvation and lack of education in other areas.

However, the Kosi Bay area near Manguzi was some of the most beautiful coastlines I could imagine, with lakes, dune forest, coastal grassland and raphia palms. I was glad to be taking my wife along with me; It was a shared experience and our strength in marriage enabled us to fulfill many of God’s challenges once there. I was certainly nervous on the way, it was the first time I had embarked on such an adventure. I felt like I’d put myself at God’s disposal, but was unsure what he really had planned for us. Was it going to be a life-changing experience? Was I going to make a difference to other people’s lives? Would I be able to hear God’s gentle voice leading me on the right path? It is difficult for me to answer these questions even now with 2 months hindsight. The experience has certainly opened my eyes to the richness of humanity, the value of forgiveness, and the difference God can make in the most remote circumstances. But I feel that it will take many more years of hindsight until I can look back at this elective and realise the influence it has had on me.

The spirituality underpinning Manguzi Hospital is clearly evident. It was originally a missionary hospital established by the Methodist Church in 1948. If it weren’t for them, the local inhabitants would never have been provided health care, certainly not by the state. Since the 1980s all these rural hospitals were taken over by the Department of Health, but many still retain their Christian ethos, as does Manguzi. This is mainly down to the staff, in particular the nurses. Once a week on a Friday morning, about 40 nurses will meet in the hospital chapel and share praise and bible study. The hospital chapel is a clear focal point of the hospital, its traditional thatched roof being the first thing to catch the eye once through the hospital gates.

Unfortunately under previous hospital management this building became greatly underused, and staff were even threatened to have their wages reduced if they continued their religious meetings. Since new management has taken over, things have thankfully improved. In any case, worship is not confined to a hospital chapel. I was very touched as I began my first day to hear all the wards come alive with gospel singing at 7am! What a way for the patients to start the day. It was the first of many opportunities to hear the wonderful South African gospel music, with nurses breaking out spontaneously into perfectly harmonized, multi-part hymns! It was a common occurrence in theatre lists when women were delivering babies by C-section, helping them to relax and making the experience more holy. And indeed, Sunday Mass resonated with the wonderful worship, often in call-and-response style, bringing that uniquely African flavour to the Church Liturgy.

My experience of Manguzi spirituality centred around the medical staff though, none of whom were Zulu. I quickly realised that most of the staff were Christian, and was even able to attend a weekly bible-study at the medical manager’s house. Christianity clearly shapes hospital policy, as seen in their hospital mission statements – all beginning “Under God...” Furthermore, the now legal practice of abortion is still forbidden under hospital policy. Individual Christian doctors will not even refer a patient to a centre which does practice it, and patients persistently requesting abortion are often forced to queue and see another doctor in the hope that someone else will refer them! A source of conflict existed with a local GP, who performs medical abortions (antigestagen followed by prostaglandin PV). 5% of these routinely require surgical evacuation, which are referred to Manguzi to perform. Often the patients in question will withhold the true reason for their miscarriage, presenting as an emergency. It makes the general surgeon, who is like myself a Catholic, very uncomfortable indeed.

For my time, medically, I often felt like I was only observing and doing little to help. I may have learnt lots, but was I making the idealistic difference I had always imagined when the word ‘mission’ was mentioned? The truth is, God’s plan for me as a witnessing Christian went far beyond my own human effort. God merely wanted me to be in the right place, at the right time, being myself – He did the rest. A group of South African students assured us that my wife and I were ‘glorifying God’ just by wearing our wedding rings around the town, and talking about our marriage when asked. That seems incredible, but that comment made perfect sense to me having learned something about the cultural climate in tribal South Africa. It is easy to criticise promiscuity and the spread of sexually transmitted infections in such a culture, but the morals go far deeper than lack of self-control. Clearly the problem of infidelity is present in many social situations all around the world, with many reasons behind them. But a factor which seemed to crop up again and again in Manguzi was the financial barrier to marriage: Lobola. This is an old tribal tradition whereby the bridegroom’s people are obliged to hand over a present of goods or cattle (but invariably a sum of money) to the father of the bride, in order to supplement a prospective marriage and ensure the right of the bridegroom to the marriage. In other words, it costs a young man a lot to commit.

With poverty as rife as it is, and with selfishness often making the lobola an extortionately high price, men simply can’t afford to commit. The culture of fidelity is simply not there, especially in young people. Of course, making matters worse, HIV is extremely prevalent – with as many as 40% of women in antenatal clinics at Manguzi having the disease. It is not just a moral problem, but a matter of life and death. People are adamant to use condoms, which in any case wouldn’t change promiscuity. Female patients are more inclined to have tubal ligations, after having 8 children, as a method of contraception. One man, a member of staff, confided in me about a medical symptom of a sensitive nature, which sounded very much like an STI. When asked if he used condoms, he exclaimed “Of course I do, but not with my girlfriend”. What he meant by this is he uses protection when being unfaithful to his partner. I spoke to the same man about my experience of marriage and chastity, but he found this a hard example to follow both with the financial implications of Lobola, and with the long distance nature of his relationship (a problem faced by generations of migrant workers forced to leave their villages to find work). It is a huge challenge for Christian missionaries to preach the theology of the body when the society is not conducive to these aims. The Zulus are proud of their culture and roots, and it would be out of the question to abolish Lobola, despite many foreign Christians thinking this to be the way forward. Any mission work must tread the fine line between preaching the Truth of the Gospel, and becoming overtly confrontational. How receptive are the Zulus to foreigners challenging their way of life? Only empathy can tell us the answer to this question. The humility of the Christian must shine through, acknowledging that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to change hearts and minds.

If you are interested in gaining experience in rural South Africa, get in touch with Africa Health Placements, who will be able to provide you with specialist advice.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My Beautiful Wife

Here is my wife whilst we were in London, for the Rosary Crusade. You can certainly see the bump is growing! Wendy says hello to everyone. Tonight Maddy (in utero) was kicking very hard, so we could see lots of movement on the surface. Perhaps we'll manage to record this as a video clip one day.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Stained Glass Window

Further to my recent post of Harvington Hall, I thought I would put up this picture of the modern memorial stained glass window which is a beautiful feature in the porch.

Someone commented that they particularly liked it, and perhaps as a little game we could see if anyone can name who the figures are. I believe they're all of local significance! I didn't take note myself, but there is a plaque next to it making it very clear, and next month I will make sure I can provide the answers!

After that wonderful requiem mass on Sunday, it was also a particularly moving scene to have tremendous sunset throughout the drive back to Birmingham. I couldn't resist sharing the picture with you:

Please pray for me: I am struggling with work, in fact struggling even getting out of bed, after a week of insomnia and interrupted sleep. And with a baby soon to come?! How will I cope?! I am seeing the doctor today, so there will be the option of sedation at least...