Posted by: Michael Kirke | September 18, 2014

A different kind of odyssey

“And then?…and then?” Did any two words ever, outside of Sacred Scripture, communicate so effectively the vision of the transcendent as these two words do in the film Ida?

This Polish film, set in the middle of the bleak post-war communist era, with characters who are equally bleak, set against both an urban and rural landscape of unremitting grimness, reveals in all of that a light of truth embodied in its central character, Ida. This light dispels all the enveloping darkness as she walks to her destiny in its final scene.

The film, shot entirely in black and white, opens in the Spartan environs of a convent. A young novice is putting the final touches to a repainted statue of the Sacred Heart. We next see a group of novices carry the statue through the snow-covered courtyard of the convent and place it on its plinth in the centre of the yard. We next see them silently eating their frugal meal and then learn that the novices are about to take their vows sometime in the coming days. Before that, however, they are asked, Ida among them, to go back into the world for a few days reflection before making their final decision.

We follow only Ida on her journey and in the course of it we learn – and she learns – the shocking truth, from an aunt whom she had never met before, that she is Jewish and a holocaust survivor. Her parents were murdered and she, little more than a baby – in a manner we learn of later – was spared and was brought to a convent where she remained until this time. Her aunt, her mother’s sister, has her own very different story. She is a magistrate in the Polish courts and although the experience of cooperating with a brutal totalitarian regime has hardened and embittered her, she still has some shreds of humanity and familial loyalty left. Although totally uncomprehending of – and at times mocking – her niece’s faith and vocation, she helps her firstly cope with the shock of her discovery and then sets out with her to help her find how her parents died and where they are buried.

Their odyssey is one in which they each discover the depths of their souls, depths of disillusion and despair in one case, depths of an infinitely more sublime nature in the other. Ida returns to the convent and after some days of preparation for her reception to the order, in a moving prayer by the statue which we first saw her painting, she asks for forgiveness because she feels she is not ready. She is given time for further reflection.

Then an event, somewhat shocking, occurs which takes her out of the convent again and she meets a young man, a musician, whom she met on her earlier odyssey. They seem to fall in love but all is not as it seems. It is not as it seems because Ida has to get the answer to those two questions, “and then?…and then?” before any new road can be entered on. He cannot answer them for her and it is at this moment that we are left to answer the questions ourselves. I can say no more.

This is a wonderful and most unusual film, as rich as any you are likely to see in a long time. The acting is superb, the dialogue is sparse and the face of Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) – for you never see much more than her face – communicates the meaning of much of what this film is offering us for reflection. Ross Douthat in the New York Times suggests that it will probably be the film of the year – even though it looks more like the film of 1962, possibly the year in which its story is set.

The film’s director is Pawel Pawlikowski. After the sudden death of his wife, it would appear that he hit a midlife crisis. So he returned to his native Warsaw from England where he lived – and made Ida. According to the Guardian, it is the film of his career.

The film has been selected as the Polish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | September 17, 2014

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, but…

In a virtuous world human beings forgive each other. Some do so unconditionally even while they remain set up on by those they forgive. Others do so conditionally when forgiveness is asked for with repentance by those offending. The dividing line between them is probably the dividing line between heroic goodness and a more ordinary goodness. In the moral order forgiveness is obligatory. Forgetting is probably an optional extra.

Forgiveness, however, has no part to play in the recording of history and not forgetting is what it is all about. The honest recording of memory has its own moral imperative.

The death of Ian Paisley gives us an occasion to reflect on these two important moral obligations and in the torrent of words which his passing has provoked there are many lapses of both in evidence.

Let us begin by exhorting that he be forgiven, even though he never asked for forgiveness. But let us not eulogise. Let us do justice in recording honestly what he did, what he said, and note as accurately as we canwhat the dreadful consequences were of both.

There has been speculation since his death – and before his death – as to his motives for his actions in the last ten or so years of his life. Was he really a peacemaker or did he finally come to the conclusion that the road on which he had spent his life had come to a dead end? Was coming to terms with his enemies and getting what seemed the best deal possible all that he could do? Unless we get a personal diary, or a reliable personal account of a conversation revealing his intimate thoughts on the matter, we are unlikely to be able to answer this question. An important fact of history, however, is that he did, willingly or unwillingly, play a critical role in returning Northern Ireland to the tolerable normality which its people now enjoy. But another fact of history, unpalatable though it may be, is that it was he who played an absolutely central role in the whole process, from its very beginning, by which Northern Ireland descended into the abyss of civil war and remained there for over 30 years with the loss of over 3000 lives, many of them totally innocent.

This morning I took from a small archive of cuttings which I keep, an article about Ian Paisley which I wrote back in December 1968 or early 1969. Just then he was no more that moderator of the small fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of which he was the founder. I re-read this with some apprehension as to whether it would stand up as any kind of a prophetic anticipation of what was going to unfold in the years between then and now. On that count I am afraid it was mixed. On the other hand, it does stand as a permanent record of what this inflamatory man thought and said up to that time. When taken along with subsequent accounts of what he later did, it bears out the judgement that he was a key catalyst in provoking the suffering endured in Northern Ireland for those 30+plus years.

In the late 1960s, with the emergence of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement, a certain naive optimism led people to believe that rational politics, real economic opportunities, even simple pragmatism, would bring Ireland a more settled future in which North and South, Catholics and Protestants would live and work peacefully for the good of the whole people of Ireland. In 1968 the prime ministers of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic met for the first time since the establishment of the two political entities back in the early 1920s. The symbolism of this, the mutual good intentions of Terence O’Neill and Sean Lemass, the two in question, lead Irish people to imagine what was heretofore unimaginable.  It looked like the end of Ireland’s own Cold War.

Our imaginations, however, did not comprehend the hidden power of Ian Paisley nor the law of unintended consequences which his unimaginable bigotry was going to unleash in the form of the resurgence of the Irish Republican Army which it provoked.

The simple chain of events which unfolded in 1968-69, for which his leadership was the catalyst, set in train all the events which followed for the next 30 years. That chain was as follows: The rapprochement of North and South initiated by Sean Lemass and Terence O’Neill, combined with the peaceful pursuit of civil rights for Catholics in Northern Ireland, set Ian Paisley on the warpath; in doing so he mobilised the extreme Protestant elements in the province to oppose both O’Neill and the civil rights marches; violent clashes ensued while the Northern Irish police and its auxiliary force, the notorious “B Specials”, were clearly not only failing to protect peaceful protesters but were aiding and abetting those attacking them; at this point enter the IRA as a counter force to provide this protection;  with the two communities now at loggerheads, enter the British Army to try to keep them apart – which then becomes the number one target for the IRA. The Thirty Year War is now on. Things would not have gone down this road without the Paisley factor.

Back in December, 1968, in his Protestant Telegraph, he told his followers: “Essentially the ‘struggle’ in Ulster as we know it is a spiritual one. There are those in our province who suffer from guilty conscience; their attitude of mind is that we Protestants are invaders and have no right to be here. The Almighty does not make mistakes; He alone is infallible. Our presence in Ulster is no accident of history. We are a special people, not of ourselves but of divine mission.”

Does all that not sound a little like the ranting of the leader of the so-called Islamic State?

“Ulster”, Paisley continued, “is the last bastion of Evangelical Protestantism in Western Europe; we must not let drop the torch of Truth at this stage of the eternal conflict between Truth and Evil. Ulster arise and acknowledge your God.”

The arch enemy is, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, I wrote in that article in 1969. Allied to it Paisley saw the ecumenical movement of that time, and people like Terence O’Neill whom he saw as liberal unionists. The article continued: “The terror at the prospect of a liberalised and tolerant community which is reflected in the pages of the Protestant Telegraph is based on the fear that a liberalised community will bring about the destruction of the moral and religious standards of Bible Protestantism, the purity of its doctrine will be lost through the growth of tolerance. This is the basis of the intolerance of the Free Presbyterianism mentality.”

Paisley’s war required a myth. He had no difficulty embellishing the “Rome Rule” myth which already existed. “In 1955,” runs a Protestant Telegraph editorial, “Rome chose the IRA and guerrilla warfare as the means of achieving the goal. Today the process is not so blatant, but nonetheless dangerous; her current policy is peaceful penetration.” The Civil Rights Movement was categorised in this way: “The objects of the movement can be listed as follows: 1. To make evil seem righteous. 2. To display bloodstained Popery as democracy. 3. To show Irish republicanism as a British way of life.” It made little sense but it set the fires burning.

Terence O’Neill called him a dinosaur in the political campaign which followed within two months of those words being written. And so he was. But this dinosaur went on to bring O’Neill to his knees and then to found the political party which virtually wiped O’Neil’s Unionist Party off the political map. The religious rhetoric was toned down but that same fundamentalist religious spirit was at the heart of all that Ian Paisley did throughout his career.

Naively, in those months before the opposing floodgates of sectarian and republican violence opened, that article predicted that the end was then not far away for Ian Paisley, Ronal Bunting (his right-hand man at that time) and their movement. “There is a terrible hopelessness about the cause which they are supporting, and its whole basis is as relevant as the basis on which the (IRA) activists in the late 1950s were working” in their futile and furtive raids on border police stations. Hopeless it was, but that hopelessness did not prevent the chain of unintended consequences spinning out that dreadful story for another thirty years. The article concluded, “But although Paisleyism is doomed as the irrational movement that it is, it can still do grievous damage; it can wreck the political life of the province and the country with all the meaningless ferocity which any irrational monster can destroy the work of sincere and rational human endeavours.”

Paisleyism – he had added a new word to the lexicon of religion and politics – was doomed even though its remnants still persist. In his hearts of hearts Paisley himself may have accepted that.  In its virulent form, however, it lasted much longer than any of us ever dreamed it would back in 1968 or 1969. May he now rest in peace, at last.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | September 14, 2014

‘The best portrayal of a good priest in decades’


This review of Calvary, the acclaimed film by John Michael McDonagh, by Archbishop Charles Chaput is well worth reading – in the event that you had any doubts about going to see it.

“Calvary” is the kind of film that leaves a theater silent at the final credits. It’s not the silence of boredom or a morgue, but the silence of people collecting their emotions in order to breathe again.

Friends who’ve seen the film, some of them already two or three times, have noticed the same effect. From the first frame to the last, “Calvary” has an understated power – a blend of everyday pain, faith, despair, humor, candor, bitterness, and forgiveness – that brands itself onto the heart with spare simplicity. It’s also the best portrayal of a good priest in impossible circumstances I’ve seen in several decades.

Read the full review here.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | September 14, 2014

Unmoved by this pitiless persecution?


Ross Douthat in the New York Times pricks the conscience of Americans, supposedly citizens of one of the most Christian countries in the world, on their blindness to the fate of the Middle East’s Christians.

For decades, he writes, the Middle East’s increasingly beleaguered Christian communities have suffered from a fatal invisibility in the Western world. And their plight has been particularly invisible in the United States, which as a majority-Christian superpower might have been expected to provide particular support.

There are three reasons for this invisibility. The political left in the West associates Christian faith with dead white male imperialism and does not come naturally to the recognition that Christianity is now the globe’s most persecuted religion. And in the Middle East the Israel-Palestine question, with its colonial overtones, has been the left’s great obsession, whereas the less ideologically convenient plight of Christians under Islamic rule is often left untouched.

To America’s strategic class, meanwhile, the Middle East’s Christians simply don’t have the kind of influence required to matter. A minority like the Kurds, geographically concentrated and well-armed, can be a player in the great game, a potential United States ally. But except in Lebanon, the region’s Christians are too scattered and impotent to offer much quid for the superpower’s quo. So whether we’re pursuing stability by backing the anti-Christian Saudis or pursuing transformation by toppling Saddam Hussein (and unleashing the furies on Iraq’s religious minorities), our policy makers have rarely given Christian interests any kind of due.

Then, finally, there is the American right, where one would expect those interests to find a greater hearing. But the ancient churches of the Middle East (Eastern Orthodox, Chaldean, Maronites, Copt, Assyrian) are theologically and culturally alien to many American Catholics and evangelicals. And the great cause of many conservative Christians in the United States is the state of Israel, toward which many Arab Christians harbor feelings that range from the complicated to the hostile.

Read his full column here.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | September 11, 2014

Footnote to a scandal


It should be much more than a footnote to a scandal – but sadly that is the way it will be played by the media in Ireland and worldwide, where it wil probably not even make the footnotes.

Nine staff members who treated Savita Halappanavar before her death at Galway University Hospital have been disciplined, the Irish Health Service Executive confirmed today.

Commenting on the reports of disciplinary action, Cora Sherlock, Deputy Chairperson of Ireland’s Pro Life Campaign told it as it should be told, underlining the outrageous and shameless dishonesty of the Irish and international media’s abuse of a woman’s tragic death nearly two years ago.

“The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar was misused, massively and continuously,” Ms. Sherlock saiid, “by major players in politics and media who were more concerned with getting abortion legislation over the line than accurate reporting. Today’s report that nine members of staff who treated Ms Halappanavar before her death have been disciplined further confirms that this tragic case was never about the non-availability of abortion in Ireland at the time but the mismanagement surrounding Savita’s care.”

Ms Sherlock said “Those who pushed the distorted version of the story hardest from the start have never bothered to set the record straight in light of all the reports that have contradicted their initial presentation of the case. These journalists and politicians were happy to hard wire a false account of what happened into people’s minds and to this day they have no intention of disturbing their original narrative.

“The public discussion on abortion in Ireland at present is deeply dishonest and the reality of this has been shown most clearly in the way Savita’s tragic case was exploited and used to railroad through last year’s abortion legislation.”


Posted by: Michael Kirke | September 11, 2014

Believe it or not, there is one good thing about Sin City

Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City 2 has been a commercial and a critical flop. That, probably, is no bad thing. It brings Frank Miller’s noir-ish, ultra-violent graphic novels to the big screen for a second time. The first Sin City was a huge box-office hit; now, nine years on, we must  roll up our sleeves, snap on our suspender belts, and return to that titillating place of permanent midnight, where men are men and women are mostly prostitutes, said Kevin Maher in The (London) Times. For another critic, what kills it is its repetitive and unengaging plot. For a film that tries very hard to shock with its “cartoonish sex and violence”, Sin City 2 is remarkably “dull”, and endurance test, he said.

But at least it has one good thing going for it, even if it is only its lurid billboard advertising we see. It is a reminder to us of what we like to forget. Sin is behovely, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well – but only so long as we don’t forget that sin exists.

The world is divided by sin – not between sinners and non-sinners. We are all, each in our own way, sinners. The great divide now is between those who know that sin exists and those who deny its existence. Sin is behovely because the sense of sin is an essential part of our living the good life. It is nothing less than our sense of reality, part of our sense of the existence of God.

It is the modern age’s defining characteristic that it has lost the sense of sin – and it has lost this because it has lost its sense of reality, its sense of God. In little more than one generation – my generation – the rot began in earnest. It was there before, indeed the history of thought shows that it was always there, but in embryonic form. It has had a long gestation but with its birth we have been presented with a true monster.

I know parents of my generation, good people who firmly believe in God and who practice their religion devoutly and publicly. Their children, now adults, are also good people and a credit to their parents, their country. They have all the refinements – kindness, generosity, a sense of responsibility –  engendered in them by the civilization we have the privilege of being part of. But there is a difference between them and their parents. They do not believe.

Does it matter? Will they be any less good, kind, generous and responsible than their parents for all that? Possibly not. Indeed, by all accounts they may be more so. Their parents were good parents and gave them the milk on which they were nurtured, milk filled with the vitamins of their own faith and vision of man’s origin and destiny. But the one thing which many in this generation did not take from that nourishing milk was faith and a belief in God, their creator. The milk with which they nourished their own children in some way failed to be transmitted – on a scale not seen between any two generations in recorded history. If this is an exaggeration please cite chapter and verse to disprove it. Nor is it an exaggeration to predict some dire consequences of this failure.

No society that we know of in history has had the kind of flourishing which the societies marked by Christian civilization have had. It is in these societies and in this civilization that our ideas of the qualities of justice, equality, kindness, mercy and a sense of the unique value of a human life have evolved. They have evolved out of a living source, even when the reality of that source itself has been doubted. That source is the Judaeo-Christian religion.

The big question however, is how long can this flourshing last beyond the outright rejection of the source from which it springs. The result of the cultural chasm which has now opened up in the West is the unravelling of the entire fabric of societities founded on those values. What we call the “triumph of the West” is under threat. It is under threat  because its source and the ultimate vision which sustained it seems to have died in the minds hearts of those who have inherited it.

Has any civilization in history outlasted the force which gave it life? In the majority of cases those forces were undoubtedly physical and brutal. Walter Benjamin observed that there is “no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He is right in most cases but to lay this charge against Christian civilization is to ignore what is at the heart of this culture. Where brutality and barbarism accompanied the spread of Christian civilization it did so in contravention of its very essence. Invariably the barbarisms which afflicted Christian societies were eventually tamed by the beauty and power the Christian message, leaving us with the jewels we have in expressions of faith –  in art, music and literature –  and flowing out from those, the treasures of human expression in all those forms as well.

Will all this now survive the loss of faith, the loss of vision which was at their heart? The signs are not propitious. Art has become banal at best – think of those sickening banners we see hanging in churches – and at worst, nihilistic. Music, for the most part, has become incomprehensible and is a weak caricature of what it was. Literature, for the most part, speaks of little more than destruction, pessimism and death without redemption – when it is not wallowing in lust which it tries to pass off as love.

If these artefacts are the manifestations of contemporary civilization, what does it augur for the future human agents who will live, breathe and look for nourishment in that civilization?  What happens when those who look out from within a culture see nothing beyond the vision presented in these artefacts? Do we really think that the human spirit can flourish in this desert? Will each generation which follows the last not slide further and further into the abyss, as the residue of goodness which they have inherited becomes fainter and fainter?

If the vision of reality contained in these words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, written nearly 2000 years ago, shortly after the dawn of Christianity, is now not just ignored but vehemently denied and its adherents persecuted for believing it, the consequences cannot but be other than apocalyptic.

 It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor anyone else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things. For God did not stand in need of these beings, in order to the accomplishing of what he had himself determined with himself beforehand should be done, as if he did not possess his own hands!

 For with him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit by whom and in whom, freely, he made all things, to whom also he speaks, saying, Let us make man after our image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), he taking from himself the substance of the creatures, and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world.

Deny this vision, reject this truth, live life according to that denial and surely things will fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Without this vision all we are left with is the misery of Sin City – and without even knowing that we should call it what it is.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | September 11, 2014

The Obama strategy on ISIS

The Daily Signal, the Heritage Council’s bulletin, gives us this take on Obama’s “strategy” for dealing with the Islamic menace incarnated in the so-called Islamic State:

On Wednesday, President Obama addressed the nation concerning an uptick of action against the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL. It was a short address that also was short on surprises.

Obama began with an apt description of ISIS and the threat it poses. In this phase of his remarks, he got it right. ISIS is a horrendous group of murderers whose savagery knows no bounds. Action must be taken. He also emphasized there is a real threat to the homeland—not an immediate one perhaps but one that requires action.

Obama attempted to paint all the military actions taken so far as having been successful.  In this, he probably overstated at least a bit. Recent operations have helped, but the problem won’t be solved without additional actions.

Read the full analysis here.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | August 31, 2014

About time


Leading UK imams have condemned British Muslims fighting alongside Isis extremists in Iraq and Syria. The imams have issued a fatwa against the fighters, describing them as “heretics”. The fatwa “religiously prohibits” British Muslims from joining “poisonous” Isis. Meanwhile, Paddy Ashdown has accused David Cameron of a “kneejerk” response to the domestic terror threat.

That was reported by The Week today. But it also reports this:
A UK travel agent is reporting a “massive increase” in bookings for holidays in Iraq. Lupine Travel, which is based in Wigan, has seen demand for its tours to Iraqi Kurdistan treble following the recent escalation of tensions in the region and has taken around 100 bookings in a few weeks. A spokesman said the bookings were from “thrill-seekers” and charity workers.

What can the imams do about that?

Posted by: Michael Kirke | August 30, 2014

Family breakdown is ‘an iceberg lurking to shipwreck society’


Britain’s ‘broken society’ – David Cameron’s term of a few years ago which he has since chosen to forget about – came painfully and shockingly into focus in Rotherham last week.

How broken it is and what the consequences of ignoring it will be were spelled out by an Anglican Bishop and social critic when he addressed The Christian Institute last week.

British society is facing a “tsunami of social disintegration” after decades of rampant divorce, cohabitation, fatherlessness, and family breakdown, the bishop said. Pakistani-born Bishop Michael Nazir Ali said that Britain’s current and growing problems with what politicians call “social cohesion,” are “an iceberg which is lurking to shipwreck society.” LifeSiteNews reported the bishop’s words on August 28.

Bishop Nazir Ali placed the blame squarely on the work of the decades of social re-engineering that has seen marriage demoted and degraded as a societal foundation and divorce become readily available. He faulted the skyrocketing rates of cohabitation that has seen the practice become the accepted norm in most western societies. The practice has contributed to a fundamental destabilization of society, he said.

“For the first time since records began there are now more unmarried than married people of marriageable age and the reality is that fewer and fewer couples have stable relationships,” the bishop said.

Read full report here.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | August 30, 2014

Of gratitude and ingratitude


“When things get better, people forget God. When things get bad, they turn back to Him again. It’s repeated throughout history. … It’s the way the human heart is made.”

This was the observation of Pat Fagan in an interview with The Daily Signal, online journal of the U.S. think-tank, The Heritage Council. Dublin-born Fagan, senior fellow and director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute at the Family Research Council, said it’s a “pattern of human nature” to forget and remember God depending on the circumstance.

Today, movie stars, singers, and athletes tend to make headlines for expressing gratitude to God.

The Daily Signal was doing a piece on the scarce gratitude shown to God by the winning stars in the initial award ceremonies – the Emmys and MTV Awards. I was pleasantly surprised that there were any!

Of 17 awards presented Sunday night during the VMAs, nine speeches — including Beyonce’s acceptance of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award — were available for review online.

Only three — Beyonce; rapper Drake, who won for Best Hip Hop Video; and the group Fifth Harmony, who won for Artist to Watch — thanked God in their acceptance speeches. (Drake accepted his award during a concert Monday.)

Read the full Daily Signal piece here

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