Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Do Dogs go to heaven?

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For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel 15 April 2015. 


On Good Friday, our dog, Ben, died. A sad irony, you may think, that a Catholic priest should suffer a loss on the day of the death of Christ himself.

Ben and his surviving brother, Joe, Cavalier King Charles, have been part of our household since they came to us as tiny, cute, charming puppies almost 10 years ago.
We will miss Ben very much. If you have lost a dear pet you will understand this. From a youngster with boundless energy, and appetite to match, he grew and grew and became comfortable in his easy routine of meat, treats and snoozing. Cavaliers snore very loudly, so we always knew where he was. When the Archbishop came to visit I didn’t think it would matter that the two were asleep in the room where we met - until we tried to make ourselves heard over snores more characteristic of hippopotamuses than small dogs. Whenever we called Ben’s name his tail would be heard banging loudly on the floor - no need for him to run and meet us (far too much effort). He would lie still on the floor, raising only his eyelids to spy the scene with cautious curiosity. No point in putting himself out …
Unless of course, it involved food, not just the meals which were set before him, nor the far too many snacks and treats, but also food left for his brother, scraps which had tumbled to the floor, cooked meats deep in bags of shopping and even - when young and lively enough to manage it - the leftovers in the kitchen bin.
He wasn’t the brightest dog ever. If his water bowl ran low he would turn it over and scratch at the floor to search for more. Not much a problem-solver, our Ben.
Yet of course, we loved him - especially my wife, whose dog he really was - and we remember him now with great affection, and of course sorrow.
For those who have never shared their lives with companion animals it may be hard to understand. Yet if you have had a pet, you know very well the pain of loss, which is not so very different from a human bereavement.

So what can I, as a priest, say about this?

After all, when we lose a loved one, faith provides a reassurance that there is a hope of life beyond this life, that love is greater even than death. Isn’t this message of Good Friday? And Easter Day? That however great the loss, even greater is the power of Love, the power of God?

So do dogs go to heaven? Do animals have souls?

Here is a theological controversy in which my wife and I take different sides.

With St Thomas Aquinas I say No. Only human beings have rational souls. Only human beings sin, only human beings need to be redeemed.

My wife, on the other hand says Yes. Dogs do have souls. They do go to heaven. (Of course).

Though our views aren’t so far apart.

Many people find it hard to believe in the Resurrection, which Christians celebrated on Easter Day, because they see it in much too narrow a way. A person dying and coming back to life? These things just don’t happen - or if they do there is some kind of rational explanation. How can this be the basis for a whole religion?

But the Resurrection is much more than the anniversary of an historical event. Resurrection is not just about one human being, or even every human being, but about the whole of creation. The Resurrection is Jesus “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The power of Love is so strong, that death and sickness and pain and suffering and wickedness and loss are all overcome.

So yes, for once my wife is right: you will find dogs in heaven.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Can't they take a joke?

Published in the Staffordshire Sentinel on 14 January 2015. You can find it on their website here: http://bit.ly/1yfulvj

The shocking events in Paris last week, particularly the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, have caused great outrage. We are sadly familiar with terrorist attacks, but this assault on a publication which makes jokes, pokes fun at public, political and religious figures alike, is especially abhorrent.

And while the terrorists in no way represent any religious tradition, they have claimed to be doing so in the name of their god. But why attack a satirical magazine? Do religious people in general lack a sense of humour? Do they look down on fun and frivolity, and feel threatened by comedy, especially satire which pokes fun at their beliefs and their practices? 

To be sure, humour can be cruel and offensive, though even the most outrageous ridicule could never justify such heinous violence.

Yet it is true that religious people often seem solemn and sombre. Some Muslim scholars see jokes as fine for children, but not for more serious adults. And there are many examples of Christian disapproval of fun and levity: the Puritan ban on Christmas, in the 17th Century, for example; the Victorian crusade against leisure activities on Sundays; the Temperance movement, against alcohol, of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and the condemnation of particular films, television and popular music since the 1950s: all these left their mark. All too often religious people just seem opposed to anything that looks like fun.  

Yet this is far from the truth. 

In Christianity in particular there is a long tradition of unsettling the powerful and poking fun at those who think they are important. 
"God scatters the proud-hearted and casts the mighty from their thrones," says the Mother of Jesus, in words which are sung every evening in Cathedrals, and convents throughout the world. 

And God scatters the proud in word and jest far more often than by gun or sword. 

Jesus gave His disciples nicknames to pull them down a peg or two: Peter was 'the Rock' - big on words, but a coward when it mattered; James and John, hotheads, were ‘Sons of Thunder’. 

And many of Jesus' stories look remarkably like satire. He spoke about judges who gave justice only after being pestered repeatedly, businessmen who amassed riches only to die the next day, and about priests too precious to help a man who had been beaten up. He talked about people who gave stones in the place of bread, and saw the speck in the eye of another but ignored the log in their own eye. He talked about the blind leading the blind. He called the holy men of his day "whitewashed walls". He even ridiculed the idea of the Messiah itself, entering the Holy City, riding not on a charger, in armour with his standards and his battalions, but on the back of a donkey, cheered along by a crowd waving only branches from the trees. This is satire. This is Charlie Hebdo. 

And when he was arrested, and his followers wanted to take up swords protect him, he told them to lay them down. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says "The word of God is alive and active; it cuts more finely than any double-edged sword." 
This is precisely the point. The Word is mightier than the sword. And a good deal more powerful, for while swords may break bodies only words can form minds. 

So humour is essential - to the religious and non-religious alike. To be able to joke is to be  free. 
The Islamic scholar Al ibn Ahmad Al Faraheedi expressed it perfectly when he said: “People would feel imprisoned if they did not joke.”

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Playing Hamlet

Published in the Sentinel (Stoke-on-Trent) 19th November 2014
(Note: this hasn’t really got anything to do with Hamlet!) 

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When I was a child "playing 'amlet" was something my Dad used to berate me and my brothers for when we were whining. It was only much later in life, and long after I had studied Shakespeare for O and A level that I realised that this phrase, so familiar from childhood, was spelt with an 'H' - playing Hamlet - and referred to the whingeing prince of Denmark.  

 

I came across Hamlet again when I was preparing for our Christmas services. Here are words from the first scene of the play, about Christmas Eve: 

 

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes

Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,

The bird of dawning singeth all night long:

And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad; 

The nights are wholesome; 

then no planets strike, No fairy takes, 

nor witch hath power to charm,

So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.


(You can find this on Spotify here: The Young Tradition – Prologue From Hamlet)

 

This got me thinking. Shakespeare speaks of an extraordinary day which cuts across the calendar and disrupts the familiar order of life. 

 

And here we are, in a season of seasons. We are approaching Christmas. Yet we have also had other commemorations: Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday (particularly poignant this year), also Halloween, and the Christian celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, commemorating the holy and the beloved dead. And soon there is the Christian season of Advent, and Jewish Hannukah, and Hindu Diwali, and then New Year and Epiphany. It is why Americans greet one another with the words "Happy Holidays" because there are so many wintertime commemorations. 

 

Yes, these are familiar enough to us, but are we celebrating ideas, or are they special days,  "hallowed and gracious times" which cut into our normal routine? They used to be. 

 

I remember, as a child, shivering on dark, frosty November 5th, huddled around a bonfire of burning leaves and fallen branches. There were potatoes wrapped in foil, treacle toffee, sparklers and perhaps a few roast chestnuts. Fireworks too! A rocket, a Catherine Wheel and a few Roman Candles. Then the next day, in school, we'd exaggerate the extent of the incendiary extravaganza our fathers had provided, competing over the size of our rockets and the colours of the firework smoke. Yet nowadays, Bonfire night is not one night but lasts weeks, from mid October to the middle of the month of November itself. 

 

Hallowe'en too was strictly restricted to October 31st, and was a modest matter of apple bobbing  (certainly no trick-or-treat, which was unheard of). If we bothered with it at all, it was inconceivable that Hallowe'en could take place - as now - over a period of days - and certainly not after the first of November, All Hallows Day itself. 

 

Now Christmas, I will admit, was anticipated a little in advance, by Carol Singing, crackers and jelly. And by Nativity plays, with crying angels, reluctant Josephs, and animals with uncooperative rear ends. Yet, even so, the time of preparation was a time of excitement. We opened our Advent calendars eagerly each morning to reveal the picture (no chocolate!) with keen anticipation. 

We were waiting, hoping, yearning for the big day itself. No such things as gifts in advance, nor presents on demand. Christmas Eve was certainly magical, a hallowed and gracious time. Even if we children waited more for Santa than for the Christ-child, the surprise of the morning was joy indeed. 

 

What has changed is much more complicated than the practice of faith. We seem to have lost the ability to celebrate any days that require preparation, and which disrupt our routine. 

 

We recognise only seasons of celebration, not unique days, which cut into our daily lives; we know how to feast, but not how to fast; we have forgotten how to prepare and anticipate, how to wait and to hope.

 

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The Picture is of Laurence Olivier in the role of Hamlet, (the Film of 1948) in perhaps the most familiar pose from the play.