31 October 2010

Immanent injustice

OK, the title is just a play on words from the last post - the injustice in this case being my own telling you I was suffering COPD - when, according to the spirometry that was done on Thursday, this is not so.

I have just a few minutes now, having just come home from Mass and getting ready to leave for orchestra (pre-concert rehearsal and then the concert), so here is the collection of stuff, for those interested in my health, that seems to have come from this last week's tests and consultations:
  • I do not have COPD
  • I do not have asthma
  • I almost certainly do not have lung cancer or tuberculosis
  • My doctor does not think my cough is caused as a side effect of the blood pressure pills I take (cough is a rare side effect of them).
Which is all very well, but:
  • I do have some sort of increased amount of guck in my bronchial tubes - keep having to clear my throat, cough, etc
  • My voice has, over the past six months or so, gone very hoarse
My doctor is inclined to doubt the cancer-from-chewing-betel-nut connexion - saving that as a last resort.  She thinks I am experiencing a combination of (disgusting subject alert) post-nasal drip and reflux.  She has put me on pills for the latter, antihistamines for the former.  If no improvement in six months, then she will send me to a specialist otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat man to us ordinary mortals).

I hate talking about my health - disgusting subject - but some have asked, so I have promised to give this run-down.

Off to concert shortly.  It has been so wonderful being able to practise a fair bit these last few weeks, because I have been on leave.  Back to work on Tuesday!

23 October 2010

Immanent Justice

Belgian Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard made a stir recently by calling AIDS an example of "immanent justice".  It's an interesting concept - Jean Piaget thought that it was the natural assumption of children - what we call poetic justice is closely related.  I think the Archbishop only meant that AIDS was the natural consequence of certain sorts of behaviour.

Be that as it may, I am experiencing a bit of immanent justice myself (no, I haven't got AIDS!).

From the age of about 13 to 27 I smoked regularly, and, through most of that time, pretty heavily - for the last 6-8 years of that, probably at the average rate of two 20-cigarette packs per day.  At the end of 1969 I became a Christian, and in March, 1970, with intense prayer, I was given the grace to quit smoking.  I have not smoked since.  The statistics on smoking more or less seem to say that after this long a hiatus, my likelihood of lung cancer is not different from that of the general population.

There are other consequences.  Smoking damages the physical integrity of the lungs - and aging contributes to the process.  The consequence is an increased likelihood of COPD - "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease" - which typically takes one of two forms (or both of them :-)) - chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

Over the past year or two, I have had an increasing tendency to cough, without any actual infective disease for the reason.  The last few months have seen the business get worse.  As I am on leave this month - October - I decided to go to talk to my doctor about it (again - I have talked to her about it in the past).  She sent me for chest X-rays, had me come back.  It is her opinion that COPD is what is happening to me.  They are going to do some spirometry tests next week to try to determine whether I am in the chronic bronchitis range (upper lungs, basically), emphysema (lower lungs), or both.  There is no treatment except that some of the anti-asthma drugs - like Ventolin - can give symptom relief.

I am always a little leery of posting personal experience stuff here - what a drag, to listen to old men moan on about their illnesses, or carry on about their garden, or whatever! - but my children do read this, and rather than e-mailing each of them distinctly, I thought it easier to put it here once for all.  Oh, and some of my children smoke - you know who you are! - so you might want to think about this.  The damage caused by smoking is irreversible, but continuing smoking increases the damage.

Just a thought :-)

But the idea of 'immanent justice' - that things that happen to us as a consequence of what we do are not just problems we have to deal with, but the actual appropriate results of our behaviour - interests me.  Are these things actual justice - or just the unfortunate consequences of things, and if we could find a way of avoiding the consequences, would the things be all right?  I would say that at least the latter view is tenable.  I don't think smoking is a sin - except, arguably, because you know it is likely to damage your body, and that (deliberately or negligently damaging your body) is sinful.  Yet it is interesting that the concept of 'immanent justice' is not simply obviously wrong.

It is said that chewing betel nut leads to an increased danger of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, oesophagus, and stomach.  For the eight years that we lived in Yap, I chewed betel nut heavily (never having been one to do things in moderation, as my two-pack-a-day cigarette habit shows).  I wonder if I have some more 'immanent justice' awaiting me :-)

16 October 2010


  • this is a theological post
  • it is pure speculation
So you have been warned.  If it sounds boring - or, even more likely, if it sounds likely to veer off into heresy (it is - and if any real theologian reads this, I would be very grateful for correction and clarification) - you may close your browser now!

OK, so you didn't close the browser.  Don't blame me.  I tried to warn you.

Ever since I became a Christian I wondered, at times, about Jesus's knowing things.  Sometimes He says very definitely that He does not know something - Mark 13:32, for instance:
But of that day and [that] hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.
And He has to ask questions:
And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?
The other night at our Rosary-cum-Bible-study evening we read the passage about the finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), and read (verse 52) that:
And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
I attempted to talk, off the cuff, a little about the fact that Jesus is both God and man; that as man He must learn things in the usual way; but that the teaching of the Church is that Jesus, though having two natures, is one Person, therefore He knows everything that God knows - which is to say that He is omniscient.  He knows everything.  He doesn't need His Mother to teach Him Hebrew - He knows it.  He doesn't need the doctors in the Temple to teach Him things.  The things they are teaching Him He, by His Spirit, taught them.

He is not two Persons.  What He knows, He knows.  This long article discusses this intricate subject.  I have not (yet :-)) read it.

Now the speculation bit...

I have just eaten a Kiwifruit.  I know what it tastes like.  How do I know?  I know because my senses tell me.  The tell me - not my brain, or my tongue, but me.  To be sure they use my tongue, my nerves, my brain, to tell me this.  But it is I who know this.

Suppose I had never eaten a Kiwifruit.  Would I know what one tastes like?  Well, I might know something.  I could be given comparisons to other fruit.  I could perform some chemical analysis.  If I knew enough of the human nervous system, had experience of eating other fruit, maybe I could know quite a lot about what a Kiwifruit tastes like.

I might know quite a lot about that experience - but I could not know that experience - not without experiencing it.

This analogy helps me.  Jesus is God Almighty.  He is before all worlds.  He is eternally in the Presence of the Father.  From Him as from the Father proceeds eternally the Holy Spirit.  He is the Word.  He almost is Knowledge.

When He tells us that "the Son" does not know when the Father has planned the consummation of all things - surely the Son does in fact know.  What could there be that the Son does not know.

It used to puzzle me when people would tell me that Jesus is here telling us that He does not know this ... as man.  I really couldn't make a lot out of that.  It almost tempted me to think, like a Nestorian, of Jesus almost as two Persons - Jesus, the Man, and Christ, the Son of God.

That cannot be.  Our Lord is just Himself.  He is One.  Yet I am helped by my Kiwifruit example.  I can know something of eating a Kiwifruit through my intellect.  My intellect is very limited, so I can only know a little about it without actually eating it.  But I can know something.  And so, perhaps, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity knows - and knows without limits - all things, including who touched Him, when the end of the age is, how to speak Hebrew - but without being man, He - even God! - cannot know the what-it-is-like to be a man.

This is all very, very dangerous speculation and could easily lead me into places I do not wish to go!  I think all speculation about the existential experience of God is, really, great foolishness.  Yet I cannot help but wonder.

For if there is anything to my speculation, it is very comforting news.  It does mean that God Himself knows what it is like to be tired.  God knows what it is like to be frustrated at a physical task - did Our Lord ever find Himself sighing in exasperation at a piece of work in His foster-father's workshop that just wouldn't seem to go right??  The thought is hopeful - or at least helpful.

For I have never suffered in any serious way; but suffering may - very likely does - await me.  We must all pass through that dark doorway that is one-way only.  Jesus on the Cross - whilst in perfect joy in the Beatific Vision - nevertheless saw that ending coming.  I know we think of His awful agony, and so we should.  Those of us who are not currently facing death may think of dying as something we will greet with relief - and so we may.  Yet I wonder.  Dylan Thomas, in his anguish at his own father's dying, expressed what I think we must all feel at the thought of the extinguishing of the light:


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Our Lord did not rage against the dying of the light, and nor should we.  Yet He knows what it is like.  He knows - He knows like the tasting of a fruit - the fears and anguish that lie behind Thomas's own loss.  May He grant us the grace and mercy to surrender our own spirit in peace into the Hands of the Father, as He did.

02 October 2010


The Latin word vacātiō, from which, ultimately, the English word 'vacation' comes (via, I think, French) means, according to Lewis and Short, 'freedom, exemption, immunity, dispensation' - especially, they say, 'exemption from military service.'  The word is derived, in Latin, from vacō 'to be empty, vacant' - and of course we get the word 'vacuum' from it as well.

I am on vacation - vacātiō - for a month - virtually all of October, although I worked yesterday, Friday the 1st of October, and I will actually go back to work on Tuesday the 2nd of November.

Susan is going off tomorrow, Sunday the 3rd, to her annual week-long theology course.  Someone has to deliver the newspapers whilst she is away, and that someone is normally me.  I had a fair bit of leave that I had to soak up.  After her course she is going to visit Helen in Newcastle for two weeks, so it seemed now was a good time to take that leave.  The end of October is our 'Family Concert' so I will just stay on vacation until November.

Vacations - 'freedom, exemption, immunity, dispensation', especially 'exemption from military service' - should be more than just time out.  It should be rather like a retreat.  I should spend time taking stock; deepen my prayer life; meditate.  In the (approximate) words of a character  in a Heinlein novel (Lazarus Long, if you want to know, in Methuselah's Children), I ought to 'take out my soul and examine it.'

I am not very good at that.  That, after all, is what mental prayer is supposed to be about - described, in that Wikipedia article, as 'a time of silence focused on God.'  And I flee mental prayer as the most terrifying thing in the world.

I don't think it is because I fear to meet God.  Well, perhaps that is inaccurate.  If I do not think that I fear to meet God, that is certainly because I have not the slightest realistic conception of what 'meeting God' would actually be like.  That only reflects my complete emptiness - vacuousness :-) - as a person.  I expect that if - when! - I actually meet God in reality, my reaction will one of wanting to shrink into a tiny speck and hope He won't notice me.  But in my feeble attempts at mental prayer, I am not consciously thinking of any such thing.

I think I fear mental prayer for the same reason I fear death.

Talking to another human being is a very natural thing to do.  I say something; you reply; I react.  I may, indeed, be subtly - or not so subtly - in control of things.  You and I are on a common plane.  We are commensurable.

I and God are incommensurable.  It is not just that, normally, I don't seem to receive conscious 'replies' from God.  Oh, I know that people will say to me, "The Lord told me this or that."  I assume that in most such cases the person means that in process of prayer and meditation, this or that idea came to him accompanied by a conviction that it is from God.  I do not for a moment discount such experiences, though I confess I rarely have them (which may, after all, be unsurprising, considering the topic I am writing about).  But I don't think that people are telling me that they have received some sort of verbal communication from God that is analogous to what their human friend might tell them.

It is not the lack of a perceptable reply from God.  My fear of mental prayer is a fear of stillness.  And that, I sometimes think, is a fear of what meeting God must be all about: total, unconditional surrender.

In dying, one by one my faculties - my senses, my ability to act, to do things - must slowly disappear.  I do not, of course, know what dying is like.  But what I imagine will be the thing I fear most is the void the complete surrender of myself, of my being, to that which is irresistible.

And surrender it ought to be.  The alternative is merely succumbing.  Being overcome.  Having one's resistance overpowered.  But I do not think that will be good.  I hope that, when I die, I will, at the end, willingly give up my life - render it up to the One Who has power, in any case, to take it.  It is not without reason that Our Lord said, "But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell." (Luke 12:5)

So that mental prayer ought to be a practice run.  In mental prayer I ought to cease my desire to get at my computer, to Google this or that, to play my horn, to read a book - even, perhaps, to chatter to God like the over-grown monkey that I sometimes feel like.  I should cease to have control, just for a while.  Oh, He loves me.  I believe that, astonishingly unbelievable as it sounds.  He loves me and no one can care more for my good than He.  But ... I do not wish to let go!  I do not wish to surrender.  Bliss though it will be - I do not wish to die.

May my vacation be a genuine vacātiō, a self-emptying, a time of freeing myself from the grip of my own I-must-be-in-control.  For that way lies inexpressible peace and joy.