Saturday, 21 August 2010

Ho hum - nearly work time again

I wanted to do a final post before setting off back for Sassuolo, but it might be a bit bitty, as I've been, well, just relaxing, and Monica's not really up for the beach at the minute. To the left is our baby, but more on that later. I'm due back at work on Thursday and we have a gynaecologist appointment on Tuesday, so the plan is to head back on Monday on the train.

What I've been mostly up to is working through Learn New Testament Greek by John H Dobson. A bit before I met Monica I was thinking that it was a shame I'd lost my German, because I was pretty good at that and I like language, and maybe it would be a good idea to try and have another go. I didn't want to learn a language that I didn't actually have a use for, or that I couldn't practise without making a particular effort. I spotted the above book in SPCK ("Is Christian Knowledge different to the usual kind?", I recall Norris asking once) and got about a third of the way through it before losing momentum. I tried again later and got a little further through. Then I met my Italian wife-to-be and learning Greek was understandably displaced with learning Italian.

Fast forward several years and I feel confident enough with my Italian to get going on Greek again. I also figure that it's now or never (or at least significantly later), since becoming a father leaves little time for learning Greek. Armed with splendidly helpful and free MemoryLifter and generous 3 week holiday, I've been getting on pretty well and enjoying myself. When you get on to about a third of the way through, you start reading from the New Testament itself (you need a copy) and the course is specifically designed to help you get to grips with the basics so you can feel like you're making rapid progress. I'd highly recommend it.

Back to the baby. We had the morfologica on Wednesday, which is when they take a load of scans of the baby and take loads of measurements too, to find out if everything is going okay. It is, in short. Monica was worrying beforehand. She does worry. It's all very exciting anyway. There was a TV-sized screen in front of Monica so we could see everything, and it all looked very swish. It was somewhat like being on the bridge of the starship enterprise. Plus, it highlights various flows in real-time with colour-coding, which makes it look as though a series of atomic explosions is going on inside one's wife, or perhaps that the photon torpedoes are ready to be launched. And then, when you've got used to the idea of seeing inside your baby's brain (they should do one for wives) and heart (textbook - the doctor kept on going back to look at it and opining that it was perfect) - Bam! 4D view of baby! Even if for some reason the colour they decided to use was that of earwax. We got a DVD with two short clips of that.

Other than that, not a lot going on. Been going for coffee at the new bar pretty regularly with Carlo. Went again on Thursday for an ice cream with Giovanna but the place was packed and noisy and I didn't feel like queueing. Working through the games section in Il Messaggero. On holiday, basically. Nearly over though, and probably back to (lack of) service as usual.
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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

In the beginning was the Word

The "confusion of tongues" by Gustav...Image via WikipediaI'm not a theologian. Nor have I studied linguistics. On the other hand, I'm a lifelong Christian become Catholic with a BA in English Literature who works in translation. Both these areas interest me.
Occasionally the following pops into my head, and I thought I'd blog it: isn't it funny that human language doesn't seem particularly aligned to Christology, given the centrality of Christ to Christianity (natch) and the big deal that is made of Jesus the Word of God:

In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came into being,
Not one thing came into being except through him.
He was in the world that had come into being through him,
and the world did not recognise him.
He came to his own
and his own people did not accept him.
The Word became flesh,
he lived among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father,
full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-3,10-11,14

God said 'Let there be light,' and there was light.
God said 'Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground.'

God created man in the image of himself,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:3,26-27

Man is made in the image of God, through the Word, whose glory is full of truth. All of creation bears the imprint of God, man especially so. Both these passages at least hint at the Holy Trinity (let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves), which, as has often been pointed out, allows the affermation that "God is love" (1 John 4:8) to make sense; since God is a community of persons even before (causally) the world was created, love can be a part of his nature – the Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father, and so on. And if he is a community, then communication is also part of his nature, part of his unity. The Word even became flesh and dwelt with man.

And yet, from this vision of God and man which suggests that language isn't just something that we do, it's an essential part of who we are we move to the reality of people who can't talk to one another because they don't have a common language. Something fishy would appear to be going on. Back in my first year at university we took a little look at linguistics, or at least at two broad schools of thought in linguistics, structuralism and post-structuralism. I can't remember in great detail what they were about, and what specifically distinguishes them, but I remember discussion of (or perhaps just listening to) how words are related to meaning. In any case, you don't have to be a linguist to appreciate that words seem to be somewhat arbitrary: a dog, for example, is a Hund in German, a chien in French, a cane in Italian, and so on and so forth. What I think marks to the passage from structuralism to post-structuralism is essentially the same thing that marks the passage from modernism to post-modernism: the former, inspired by the enlightenment, attempts to classify and provide a logical internal structure (again, natch) for understanding language, the latter sees how bloody difficult this is and gives up, abandoning examination of the relationships within language for relativism and (proudly?) proclaiming that meaning is in fact a myth.

We've got something of a disconnect on our hands: is language essential, unifying and full of truth or is it arbitrary, unable to unify us and devoid of meaning?

I have to admit that I don't have this clear in my own mind. Both visions seem pretty extreme; I guess that the solution lies somewhere in the middle, as it is prone to do. I certainly don't doubt God's revelation, but it's also very easy to follow the logic of the post-structuralists. Of course, revelation does give us an account of the matter. However, unfortunately it's one of those incidents where God comes out looking like a bit of a cosmic jerk on the face of it:

The whole world spoke the same language, with the same vocabulary. [...] 'Come,' they said, 'let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we do not get scattered all over the world.'
'So they are all a single people with a single language!' said the Lord. 'This is only the start of their undertakings! Now nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they cannot understand one another.' [... T]here the Lord confused the language of the whole world and from there the Lord scattered them all over the world.

Genesis 11:1,4,6-7,9

I'd prefer not to get too bogged down in defending God's reputation – perhaps that's a topic for another time – but the passage itself is surely fundamental, given the topic. Note again, that God seems to act as Trinity on this occasion as well. God deliberately limits man's ability to communicate, to stop him doing whatever he wants to do. In fact, perhaps this is obviously for the best after the fall. We all know very well what a mess we've made of the whole world with the percentage of our brain that we do use, just think of the damage we would have done by now if we'd devoted all of our grey matter to it! On the other side of the equation however is Pentecost:

When Pentecost day came round, they had all met together, when suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a violent wind which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and there appeared to them tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak different languages as the Spirit gave them power to express themselves.

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed them in a loud voice:
[... T]his is what the prophet was saying:
In the last days – the Lord declares -
I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity.
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your young people shall see visions,
your old people dream dreams.

Acts 2:1-4,14,16-17

Here we effectively have the tower of Babel in reverse, as I'm not the first to say. And here we have the Trinity and consequently Christology. As he promised, the Son has sent the Spirit, the Spirit in whom we are adopted sons and can say "Abba, Father!". We are co-heirs with Christ and members of his body, caught up in the life of the Holy Trinity, and in this first Pentecost of the Church, preached by the apostles, God sees fit to restore unity of language as a miraculous sign of the outpouring of his grace.

The post-strucuralists gave us a pretty bleak vision of language, but that's not the only way of looking at it. Disparity of language doesn't seem to actually be a bad thing in itself. I think it's fascinating personally. Looking back at the creation account, we see God's creative action through the Word and we see man made in his image. Human languages are of course the result of creativity. God has made us co-creators in his image, and different communities of people have created their own languages, through which they have communion. As it's very fashionable to say nowadays, especially in response to people who are complaining about declining standards in English, this is also a continuing process, and involves, whether we like it or not, the concise text messages sent among groups of disenfranchised youth. "Word made flesh" might in fact be an apt expression to describe the development of language among mankind. Also, I understand that St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the great variety of life and difference in creation is an expression of the glory of God, praised by all his works in chorus. And though I might sometimes have a little trouble in the supermarket here in Italy, perhaps its more important after all that Gods praises are sounded with a variety of sounds.

That's all I can think to say on the matter. I'm sure it's just the tip of the iceberg. I'd like to know what a proper Christian linguist had to say about it, but I don't remember seeing many books on the subject. It might be a niche interest, but I'm sure someone other than myself must find it interesting.
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Sunday, 15 August 2010

Happy Assumption/Ferragosto!

Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Rubens)Image via WikipediaFerragosto is a special time of the year, when Italians like to simultaneously queue on motorways. I think I read somewhere that this is a Roman tradition (presumably without the motorways), but the Church decided to celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the same day. I think they may have overestimated common sense levels, because many Italians prefer queuing on the motorway to going to Mass.

Anyway, I thought I'd take this occasion to look at a Marian thingamy. Yesterday (we went to the vigil Mass because it's easier on Monica at the moment) the Church gave us the following first reading:

David assembled all Israel at Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the Lord to its place, which he had prepared for it. And David gathered together the sons of Aaron and the Levites: And the Levites carried the ark of God upon their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord. David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brethren as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.

And they brought the ark of God, and set it inside the tent which David had pitched for it; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before God. And when David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord. - 1 Chr 15:3-4, 15,16;16:1-2

That may not seem a particularly relevant reading for the Assumption, but it is. Mary has long been considered as the new ark of the (new) covenant. The lost ark bore the Ten Words of the law and manna, the bread from heaven. Mary bore the Word made flesh, the Bread of Life which came down through heaven. What's interesting though, is that the connection isn't only the result of the imagination of the early Church, it's also alluded to by St. Luke and St. John.

Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting since the cloud stayed over it and the glory of the Lord filled the dwelling. - Ex 40:35
Now when the priests came out of the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord, and because of the cloud the priests could not stay and perform their duties. - 1 Kgs 8:10-11
When St. Luke narrates the annunciation, he uses the same Greek word used in the Septuagint to describe how Mary will be overshadowed with the glory of God:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. - Lk 1:35
There is a similar series of allusions in the visitation, to 2 Samuel:

David went to Baalah of Judah, from there to bring up the ark of God [...] They transported the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of Abinadab's house which is on the hill. [...] David and the whole house of Israel danced before the Lord with all their might. [...] That day David felt afraid of the Lord. 'How can the ark of the Lord come to be with me?' he said. So David decided not to take the ark of the Lord with him [but] the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom of Gath for three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and his whole family. [Bringing the ark up to the city of David,] David danced whirling round before the Lord with all his might. - 2 Sam 6:2-3,5,9-11,14
Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah. She went into Zechariah's house and greeted Elizabeth. Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leapt in the womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said 'Of all women you are the most blessed and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?[' ...] Mary stayed with her some three months and then went home. - Lk 1:39-43,56
As far as St. John is concerned:

Then the sanctuary of God in heaven opened, and the ark of the covenant could be seen inside it. Then came flashes of lightning, peals of thunder and an earthquake and violent hail. Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth. [...] The woman was delivered of a boy, the son who was to rule all the nations with an iron sceptre, and the child was taken up to God and to his throne[.] - Rev 11:19-12:2,5
One wonders what the ark of the covenant is doing in heaven anyway. I mean, its been lost for centuries despite the best efforts of the nazis, and in the meantime, the very Word of God has come to earth, tabernacled among us and, having ascended to the Father, sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in temples which are situated in the most unlikely of places – in men.

However, there is a new ark in heaven, and St. John seems to associate it with this woman who can be readily identified with Mary, even if we can also see different interpretations. Obviously there's nothing here saying explicitly ark = woman either, but the way the images run together is telling. St. John has already done the same sort of thing when he writes that one of the elders says "Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah [...] has triumphed, and so he will open the scroll and its seven seals" (Rev 5:5) only to see the seals of the scroll broken by ... a lamb. (Rev 5,6,7,8)

I think it's interesting to see these links because it provides a key to understanding the Marian dogmas, especially her perpetual virginity (as well as the virgin birth) and immaculate conception. It was an appropriate sign of the holiness of Jesus Christ that the womb that bore him bore no other child and that she knew not a man, as it was not permitted for just any man to enter the holy of holies. It was also appropriate that the mother who bore him was free from the stain of sin; the sinless Mother of God was a fit dwelling place for the Son of Man who has conquered sin.

I'd like to recommend Mark Shea's three books "Mary: Mother of the Son" on the subject of all things Marian. Mark was an atheist, then an evangelical, now a Catholic, so he knows how to approach the subject of such a strange-seeming phenomenon as devotion to Mary in a way which is sympathetic to the sceptical.
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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Back to Offagna!

Coat of Arms of Offagna.Image via Wikipedia
Hey hey!

Well here I am again in Offagna with my beautiful wife again and on my unprecedeted 3 week summer holidays. Life is good.

Wednesday, my last day of work, went about as well as could reasonably be expected. Half an hour before home time, I ran out of work, not a particularly frequent occurrence in itself, and especially handy given that I was planning on getting up at 5:30 to catch the train from Sassuolo. I was playing it rather safe, but better that than risking missing my connection.

Obviously I was knackered, but the journey went very well. My seat was at the end of the carriage at a table with some girls and a woman, and though I had feared a boring, insular journey (3 of the 4 of us had our iPods out to start with) I cunningly managed to strike up a conversation with the one who was reading the book of the film of Robin Hood (with Russell one-face Crowe) in English so we ended up chatting for most of the journey. I like talking to people on trains. I know that in theory, you can end up cornered by a bore, but it's never happened to me.

Offagna's changed a bit. The manky old bus stop that I used to wait in for the coach/bus to my Italian for foreigners lessons has been replaced with a little bar in the centre of a new roundabout. A big improvement. I popped there after dinner with Giancarlo, who approves of the coffee. It's not as if I've become a connisseur or anything (indeed, I'm not even sure how to spell it) but I would tend to agree.

It was a long day, the day I arrived. As I mentioned previously, I got up at 5:30. Once I was starting to settle down in Offagna after the ample meal which always awaits me here (what a thing it is to have Italian in-laws), Monica had rather a shock. She said that she felt her heart stop, and then it began to beat very strongly. She panicked, got to her feet, and then she lost her vision for a moment. Monica, as you may know, can get very anxious, and if that happened to me, I'd be pretty anxious too. We went to the pharmacist's for some advice, who advised us to go to the doctor's. Monica does not hold Offagna's local doctor in high regard, so she probably wouldn't have gone except that the usual doctor was away and there was a locum (is that right?) covering his holidays. Whether or not he's a good doctor, he has an inspirational Mussolini calendar and a little bust of him behind his desk, so I think I'd probably avoid him too. The doctor though it was probably a reflusso (update: Neil says it means reflux) which was aggravated by the fact that everything in Monica's upper body is a bit closer together now she's pregnant, and further exacerbated by the fact that she got up suddenly in panic. So we decided to go to A&E to get a check. This is something I've done myself actually. When I was working at the Exeter RD&E hospital, I had a pain in my chest and had it checked out (rather oddly meeting my old Exeter University Choral Society conductor, who was working at the reception) because it doesn't pay to ignore these things, even if it does turn out to be nothing. I won't go into how it happened, except to say that we went to the wrong hospital, and from thereon in, the whole process was dealt with very badly, but we were there for about four hours, and only left after midnight. In any case, Monica's fine, but she'll have to pay attention to not eating big meals, and eating frequently instead.

My sausage was a bit cold by that point.

One of the other things that's changed is that my little niece Beatrice has got bigger. I understand that this is in accordance with the general trend. Monica had been telling me for weeks on the phone, but she is a very happy baby. She's always laughing, and I should hope so too, because she cerainly eats enough to be a very happy baby. She was a little wary of me at first, because I haven't seen her for some time and she's forgotten who I am, but she got over it pretty quickly. We took her out for a stroll the other day, and saw another of Offgna's little novelties, the Mary Poppins bookshop. Nice. Bought a couple of cards at exorbitant prices.

Other than that, not much to report. Brought a few books with me: A Concise History of Italy, which I'm rereading because I've forgotten most of the contents, Learn New Testmant Greek by John Dobson and The Two Towers in Italian. It's something of a celebratory time here in Offagna, because Fabrizio the deacon has finally got his upgrade to priest, and is celebrating his first mass in Offagna tomorrow in the Church of the (really) Blessed Sacrament.