Thursday, October 16, 2008

Politics and Perception

Here in Canada we have just finished a federal election while the US presidential election has three more weeks to go (it seems that it has been going on for ages). One characteristic that stands out in these election campaigns is the tremendous amount of negativity in the campaigns. Here in Canada the Conservatives ran attack ads that said that Dion (the Liberal leader) was too much of a risk. At the same time the Liberals and the New Democrats ran ads that said much the same thing about Harper (the Conservative leader). It seems to me that things might be even worse in the US campaign. Generally, it seems to me that each side (not always officially) seeks to portray their opponent as being incompetent or corrupt. Experts tell us that these kind of attacks in fact work. Attack ads are able to move voters from one opinion to another. The problem, I think, is that at the same time these ads create a public perception of politicians in general. In other words, if during an election campaign both sides spend huge amounts of money trying to convince the public that their opponents are incompetent, corrupt, or possibly immoral then at the end of the campaign politicians in general should not be surprised when the voting public is generally of the opinion that all politicians are incompetent, or corrupt, or immoral. Another problem of course is that this negativity has an impact on politicians ability (it seems to me) to work together to solve serious problems facing the country. Sure, they talk about putting negativity aside but why, for example, would Prime Minister Harper want to work with Newfoundland premier Danny Williams when Williams has called him every name under the sun and actively campaigned against the Conservative party in the election. Politics, ideally, is a competition of ideas. When politics start to be about character assassination this has to effect the ability of the political system to function in the interests of the whole country.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Life of Prayer

The reflection for our next RCIA session asks us about out prayer life, when we pray, and when we find prayer difficult. When I look back on my own prayer life I don't think that I had much of a prayer life for a long time. Like many Catholics my age I think that the experience of prayer that sticks in my mind is the family recitation of the rosary before bed time. The rosary then was an exercise in rote memory. I don't remember praying for anything during this and I'm not sure that I had much of a "connection" with God during this early prayer. I think that my first real experience (like those of many) of prayer was with the prayer of petition. So, in times of crisis I remember praying to God to help or to heal someone.

It is embarrassing to admit it but I think my prayer life only began to develop a few years ago. I first began a regular prayer life when the Catholic school where I was teaching finally got a chapel. I began to spend quiet time there before school began in the morning. That habit of setting aside time to pray in the morning has stayed with me through the last years of my teaching career and the first years of my retirement. During this time I also began the practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. This method of prayer had two advantages for me. First of all, it maintained for me the habit of praying at a particular time (In my parish we have a community celebration of Morning Prayer which I try to attend every day.). Secondly, the Liturgy of the Hours led me to examine more closely other kinds of prayer than the prayer of petition. The psalms which are the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours praise God, give thanks to God, and many other things in addition to asking God for blessings. I have to confess again that my use of the Liturgy of the Hours for other times of the day has not been as regular as for Morning prayer.
Another thing that has influenced my prayer life in the last few months has been my involvement in the hospital ministry of our parish. It has been quite natural for me to pray for those people I meet during these hospital visits and this intercessory prayer has helped my prayer life a lot. Here I have found that returning to my early experience of praying the Rosary has been a help.

Sometimes prayer is not easy. Quite often my mind does not want to dwell on God and instead I find myself think of any number of other things. I am not sure what causes this (short of attention deficit disorder). I take some consolation from the prayer of Thomas Merton that: "the desire to please you, does in fact please you.' So at these times of distraction I hope that the honest effort to pray does also please God.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Culture and Morality

The weekend paper carried a story by Karin Brulliard of the Washington Post titled: Zulus torn over virginity tests. It seems to me that this article illustrates a sort of cultural shift that threatens traditional morals and values in such areas as sexuality. Basically, according to the article, the tradition involves young girls undergoing an inspection by a woman elder of the tribe to determine if the girl is a virgin or not. Now of course there are lots of potential problems with this tradition - the most obvious one being that the responsibility for chastity is placed only on the females of the community. According to the article the opponents of this tradition argued that the procedure was degrading; it was emotionally scarring for girls who did not pass; it subjected girls who did pass to the possibility that they would be raped in a culture where some men believe that intercourse with a virgin can cure aids. Finally, the opponents argue that the tradition, as important as it may have been in the past no longer serves the needs of the society.

What seems to be said here is that "traditional" morality is offensive to individual rights and "old fashioned." Of course there are good reasons for "old fashioned" morality. South Africa, where the Zulus live, is a nation facing a catastrophic aids crisis. One very simple way of partly dealing with the spread of this disease is to encourage the citizens to practice traditional sexual morality. By the way, the article makes clear that this tradition has nothing to do with the practice of female genital mutilation found in some African cultures. The controversy over this traditional practice is seen in the article as a conflict between "modern" ideas of individual rights and tradition and tribal culture.

I seem to recall evidence of a similar attitude a while back when the host of an awards show on television publicly criticized some teens present (I think it was the Jonas brothers) who were wearing "purity rings" as a sign of their commitment to chastity until marriage. So, in this culture, as in South Africa, the traditional value placed on chastity has been replaced and the traditional value is seen as weird or strange or old fashioned. I think that you see something similar in action when a while back an American paper editorialized that Sarah Palin (Republican nominee for Vice President) did society a disservice when she chose to give birth to a child with Down's Syndrome. Her choice, the paper said, might encourage other mothers (who might not have the same emotional and physical resources as Palin) to choose to give birth to Down's Syndrome babies rather than aborting them (which apparently is now the "normal" thing to do)

So it seems to me that globally we are living in an age of individualism that has a profound impact on traditional morality. In this respect we no longer live in a Christian culture. We are back to an earlier time when we as Christians were called to be counter-cultural. Only by proclaiming and holding firm to important values can we have a chance at preserving what is important from our past.