Tuesday 31 May 2022

Lake Como: the Abbey of Piona, St Lucia (Perledo) and the via di Pino

 During a recent holiday to Lake Como - our first overseas visit since the pandemic - Zero and I visited three places of Catholic interest.

The first was the Cistercian abbey of Piona, towards the northern end of the Lake. The road to the abbey is somewhat involved, and the last kilometre or so is a pebbled road. This site gives a better account of the Abbey in English than wikipedia; the abbey's own website is in Italian: Abbazia di Piona. A page of the abbey's site contains a range of photographs which give an idea of the environment at the Abbey. Two of these photographs show the tabernacle positioned on the altar of the church, an arrangement which on previous visits to the Abbey had struck me as being particularly suitable for the praying of the Divine Office. Both the monks sitting in the sanctuary "behind" the altar and the lay faithful in the nave would have an orientation towards the Lord in their prayer.

From the sanctuary looking towards the nave 

From the nave looking towards the sanctuary

However, at the time of this visit the tabernacle has been moved from the altar and is now situated at the side of the sanctuary - roughly in the place of the lectern shown at the right hand side of the first picture above. The effect is to reduce the sense of the centrality of the Eucharistic presence in the Church. 

On the eve of the solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (though in Italy the solemnity was celebrated on the following Sunday), we attended Mass in the small village of Perledo above Varenna. We have stayed in Perledo on previous visits to Lake Como, and it has spectacular views across the lake. Weekday Mass was celebrated in the small chapel of St Lucia, with Zero and I making the congregation up from three to five. Mass was nicely celebrated, and the thought that weekday Mass was celebrated here three times during the week for such a small congregation was moving.

During this visit we stayed in a locality called Pino, south of Varenna and above Fiumelatte. A five minute walk along the via di Pino from where we were staying there was a roadside shrine to Our Lady. Nearby was a restaurant where we ate on two evenings, and it was from the restaurant that we first heard the Rosary being recited by the shrine. It was rather lovely on our last evening to join the twenty or so people who had gathered each evening in May for the Rosary, and to see a road side shrine being decorated with flowers as the focus of this devotion.

Both our experience in Perledo and on the via di Pino reminded me of Pope Francis' observation, made at an early point in his pontificate, that popular devotion represents the inculturation of the Gospel.

Sunday 15 May 2022

All the Cathedrals (13): Salisbury

Zero and I recently ventured out on the railway (taking advantage of the half price rail fares at the time) for a visit to Salisbury. We could have planned our visit a bit more carefully to take in Old Sarum, which is a mile or two outside of the city centre, and can be reached by a short bus journey. 

 We lunched at The Pheasant after arriving; it is a little off the city centre in Salt Street, so you aren't going to come across it without knowing about it. You will also need to check their times for serving food - but we did enjoy our meals there. [Or, on a nice summers day, you could probably take a picnic to eat on the grassed area within the Cathedral close.]

The site at Old Sarum is an English Heritage site, and you can read about it here and here. The first Cathedral in Salisbury was built there, before being abandoned. A result of this is that the "new" Cathedral has a consistent medieval gothic architecture, rather than it being in part a previous build with later gothic additions. It is still a living cathedral in the sense that there are modern day features in addition to the older building. At one point in its history, stained glass was removed from the nave windows with the outcome that the nave appears today very light due to the influx of natural daylight. That having been said, there is a good deal of stained glass present, reflecting the late 19th century as well as earlier influences. We did not follow the stained glass tour, which would no doubt have given much more insight. The Cathedral charge for entry, with a £1 reduction if you book ahead online.

The Chapter House is a round building off the cloister at the side of the Cathedral. It is interesting for those of a scientific or design orientation to realise how very well lit the room is from the windows around it. The Chapter House is where you can see Salisbury Cathedral's copy of the Magna Carta. Whilst there is a very informative display about the document's contents, the viewing of the actual document itself is somewhat underwhelming - the way in which it has been displayed, in subdued lighting, in order to preserve it leaves you with a feeling of "is that all there is?" 

The Reformation saw the destruction of the shrine of St Osmund and the removal of statues. A visit will take you to a chantry chapel that was discontinued at this time and its statues removed. The Cathedral experienced very little damage during the Civil War, another period when Cathedrals in England typically suffered. During most of the Civil War, Salisbury was in Royalist hands, with a brief occupation by Parliamentary troops in the winter of 1644-1645, when the cloister was used as a prison.

The prisoners of conscience window was completed in the Cathedral in 1980. A brief account and a photograph can be found here. As the comment here says, we found it very difficult to make out any of the images in the window. This video clip, from 2020, gives an explanation of some of the elements in the window. Whilst prisoners of conscience, even those without religious faith, can certainly look to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus and see in it something of their own experience, I am not sure what I think of the possibility of a reverse representation in this window of Jesus as if he is himself a prisoner of conscience. It seems to me a  reductive interpretation of Jesus' death for the salvation of the world.

Perhaps the most remarkable modern feature of Salisbury Cathedral is the baptismal font. My first photograph gives an idea of the position of the font in the nave; the second gives an idea of the power of the reflections that can be seen in the surface. Given the very modern concept of the font - an account by the designer can be found here - it is striking just how much at home the font appears in the Cathedral.

There are one or two museums in the Cathedral Close, but we did not have time to visit them. Perhaps the Salisbury Museum would be the best to see, as it covers the story of Salisbury itself.

Part of the genius of Anglicanism is its ability to be a Church for a wider community, reflected in the readiness for a property such as a Cathedral to be used for non-religious purposes. The nave of Salisbury Cathedral, for example, was at one point, when it was closed to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, used as a vaccination centre. And Salisbury Cathedral can be hired for events. It is difficult to separate this from the fact that, inevitably, a Cathedral such as Salisbury is a "visitor attraction" as well as being an active place of Christian worship.

Saturday 7 May 2022

Liverpool - return to the synchrocyclotron

Back in 2010 I posted about the synchrocyclotron that was built by the Physics Department of the University of Liverpool: Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: Location of the UK's first synchrocyclotron.

Now, the May 2022 issue of the Institute of Physics magazine Physics World carries a feature on The Legacy of Liverpool's forgotten synchrocyclotron. The article does include an account of some of the research undertaken using the synchrocyclotron, and may be a bit technical for the non-physicist reader. However, there is enough of the history for it to be worth a read.

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Different narratives: abortion

As I have followed the coverage of the leak of a draft decision of the US Supreme Court with regard to the Roe vs Wade judgement on abortion, a number of thoughts have come to mind.

The first has been about the way in which the relationship between the notion of the rule of law and the exercise of political office is perceived. So for, example, President Biden has very quickly expressed his concerns (or, more honestly, opposition?) to the striking down of Roe vs Wade that the leaked draft seems to foreshadow. And Vice-President Kamala Harris has been even more explicit. It seems legitimate that those in high public office should attack a possible court ruling, rather than indicating their compliance with the rule of law that might result. 

The public narrative - and it is there in both President Biden's and Vice-President Harris' remarks - speaks in terms of women having a right to choose, and in their having a right to have control over their bodies. This right to choose is seen as a "women's right" to be defended. There is a literature, from authors on both sides of the debate about legalized abortion, that describes the experiences of women who have had abortions. The examples of this literature on my own bookshelves are not particularly recent, but the themes involved were referenced by a speaker towards the end of BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, who cited a book she had viewed in a visit to an abortion clinic where women had written their thoughts about their experiences. There are a wide range of reasons that lie behind women deciding to have abortions, some examples being family pressures, financial pressures, unsupportive partners or partners with addictions, effect on education or career prospects; and there can be very different emotional responses arising from those decisions. 

In other words, there are multiple narratives, not one single narrative. And in many of those narratives there are one or more constraints being exerted on the woman's freedom in choosing for or against abortion; they are not exercising a right to choose in the real sense of that phrase. Our conversation about abortion, if it is to respect and reflect the real experiences of women, cannot be one about a "right to choose". It has to include the full range of narratives; and, even remaining neutral with regard to the rights and wrongs as such of abortion, that wider conversation could be expected to lead to change in the practice of abortion.

Interestingly, the pro-life speaker in this morning's Today programme interview (Melanie McDonagh) was insistent on our talking about abortion as the "killing of a foetus" rather than using a term like "healthcare procedure", and in recognising that the foetus is a human being in various stages of development. Our conversation needs to reflect that there is this foetus as well as the woman in the situation. From my own reading, the difficult emotional responses that some women experience occur from precisely this recognition.

The full interview from the Today programme can be found here, beginning at 2:22. It will be available for the next 29 days. The BBC news website has a page in which six women from America give their responses to the Supreme Court leak: Roe v Wade: US women divided on leaked abortion ruling. Perhaps Catherine Nix's observation that, whether abortion is legal or not, there will still be women with unexpected pregnancies who need help and support is the most thoughtful response.

A final thought. One of my take away points from the #MeToo movement, and from recent concerns here in the UK about violence against women, has been that the safety of women requires men to take an increased responsibility for the behaviour that they show towards women. And yet the language of a "woman's right to choose" in terms of abortion appears to take an opposite stance, suggesting an autonomy of women from men's behaviours. (As do adverts for the morning after pill, with a strap line "It's my morning after".)

Sunday 1 May 2022

Different narratives: ThisEgg and John Fisher School

The news coverage of the conflict in the Ukraine alerts us to the way in which the same events can be the subject of widely different narratives, depending on the source of the information used in the coverage.

But this happens in other situations, too. One is the Family Sex Show, recently cancelled. Care's report is here: Family sex show "cancelled" following backlash. It links to reports on the BBC news website (The Family Sex show cancelled amid threats and abuse at staff) and at the Guardian (Sex education theatre show for children cancelled after 'violent threats'). As Care point out, the emphasis in the wider media reporting, and in particular in the choice of headlines, follows the statement from the producers of the show with respect to threats and abuse. There is little acknowledgement that the show has been cancelled following significant concern about its explicit content for a target audience of children aged 5+.

In the light of more recent events there is a subtlety in the purpose of the Family Sex Show, as stated in publicity for the show itself:

Using real life bodies, personal stories, songs and movement, The Family Sex Show puts the good stuff at the forefront of conversation and imagines a future where there is no shame; but a celebration of difference, equality and liberation.

The idea of a "future where there is no shame" hides a subtle intent. This week Neil Parish MP has resigned after watching pornography in the Houses of Parliament and, commenting on the same, Lord Bethell of Romford has referred to a complete lack of any moral sense that he saw when suggesting to a fellow tube traveller that it was not appropriate to be watching pornography in easy view of others. The idea that young people should be encouraged to have a future where there is no shame hides that subtle intent of undermining any moral sense. 

Likewise, there are two very different narratives surrounding strike action being taken by teachers at the John Fisher School in Purley. For the union, and much of the media coverage, this is a story of discrimination against an LGBT+ children's author - the strike action is directed against a "discriminatory working environment" and aims to reinstate dismissed Foundation Governors and the cancelled visit by the author. But, as the responsible Catholic Diocese points out in its most recent statement, the question has always been one relating to the content of the books being promoted and does not reflect any discrimination against the author or others. The Southwark Diocesan statement cites what might be termed "highlights" as far as inappropriate content goes; having spent the last few days reading the book cited, there is a sustained sexualised content with additional scenes that give rise for concern. The content is questionable for promotion in any school, where there are likely to be pupils of the Christian faith even when the school does not have a religious designation, let alone a Catholic school.

As a bit of an aside, the union taking industrial action at John Fisher School seem to have missed the disparaging view of the school work force that is shown at some points in the book. They seem to have missed (on page 2 of the book!) a female teacher shouting "Get the hell down, you skinny little runt!" at a pupil and this paragraph in chapter 14:

Mrs Peters was the surly woman who guarded reception (and the photocopier access) like it was Fort Knox and, like most people who worked in schools, she utterly despised kids.

It is worth noting that the snap OFSTED inspection has spoken highly of the school's care for its pupils.

UPDATE: This morning (2nd May), Mona Siddiqi delivered the "Thought for the Day" slot on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. It will have occurred at about 1:45 into the programme, and will in due course be accessible on the programme website: Radio 4 Today Programme. In the context of the Islamic feast of Eid and the end of the month of Ramadan, she spoke about the significance of the idea of shame, in its unhelpful sense (that in which one person actively "shames" another) and in its valuable sense (in which a person's own sense of shame acts as a prompt of conscience). She recognised how this reflection was significant for standards in public life.