Friday, 31 August 2012

Let Us Pray

In a couple of weeks our diocese will hold its annual synod, and given the significant changes that are in store for us I have asked that this weekend, August 31 - September 2, we set aside time to pray, specifically, about our future. John Franklin has done a great job of organising this weekend and I am excited and humbled by the  inventiveness and enthusiasm with which people have taken up the call. I will be attending events in Gore and Dunedin over the next couple of days and look forward to hearing what happens in other centres.

When we pray together this weekend three  things will happen:

We will be bound into community. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he told them to begin "Our father" not "My father". All the personal pronouns in the Lords prayer are plurals. We shouldn't be surprised at this, for the revelation of God has always been given to communities - Israel, the disciples, the Church - and its implications worked out by communities. We can't pray together without realising again that we are -each of us -an integral part of that millennia old unfolding of God's purposes for humanity.

We will receive. Amongst the resources John has distributed for the weekend is a notebook in which people are invited to jot down any thoughts, insights, inspirations, observations, hopes, fears, dreams or other significant happenings from their time of openness to the Holy Spirit. This act of listening and receiving is centre of what we are doing this weekend. Prayer is never about trying to persuade the Almighty to jiggle the laws of the universe a bit in our favour or about giving God advice on how things might unfold from this point onwards. Prayer is an acknowledgement that no matter how difficult things might appear at the moment, the universe has direction and meaning; life is unfolding around us in a purposeful  way and those purposes are most clearly seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Finding out in some detail what those purposes are involves us not so much in an act of learning, as an act of unlearning. To pray we need to let go. The various methods of prayer are all tools doing the same job: encouraging us to be quiet for long enough to attune ourselves to the deep rhythms of the universe and to the great mind which created all things and sustains all things.

Things will change. When we place ourselves before all that is most true and most holy and we focus our intentions and our wills, changes occur. The world will change, but primarily, we will change. We will lose some of the fog that blinds us to the truth of what it is that God is doing; of  the gifts and strengths already amongst us, sufficient for all that we are required to do; of the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit who sustains, comforts and strengthens. The greatest change will be that we will see more clearly how we are to act. To pray is to risk being challenged and called - the scariest and most exciting risk I know.

O Lord, who has not stopped forming us since the hour of our beginning;
Who has come among us to save us from ourselves and teach us to love;
Who dwells beside us and within us and below us and above us,

Give us the grace to think again.

May we know the joy of true discipleship;
May our relationships with you and with each other be real and deep;
May we have the courage to give our best for the least.

In the name of Jesus our Lord. 

Monday, 20 August 2012

Camino Preparation 1

It has been decidedly pluvial here of late, so today was a good day to test out my wet weather gear. Around the middle of the day I went for a 3 hour walk along the Portobello Road (the road in the photo behind the title of this blog) stopping only to help a woman whose car had hit a falling rock and burst a tyre. It rained. A lot.I came back over the hill so had quite a good workout and am quite confident that my fitness level is up to the mark, but the weatherproofing is not so hopeful.

After an hour my goretex shoes began to admit a little water, though the woolen socks absorbed it and warmed it up satisfactorily. By the time I got home they were sodden but I expected that. After an hour and a half my overtrousers began to leak and after two hours my faithful old Macpac jacket began to show signs that it might be getting past its use by date. It's a simple Goretex rain jacket that is probably about 7 years old now. I have waterproofed it twice in the past few weeks, but it still becomes saturated after a half hour or so, and begins to leak at the seams after a couple of hours. I'm told that it is possible to get rain for a week in the mountains of Galicia. Of course no raincoat yet invented will stand up to that but I might need something that keeps out la agua for more than a couple of hours.

My Osprey pack was brilliant. The Kathmandu rain cover kept it perfectly dry, and it was so light on my back that I was half way through changing the damsel in distress's tyre before I realised that I had forgotten to take it off. Not so brilliant was the Lowepro "All Weather" camera case. As long as your definition of "All" doesn't include rain, then the description is perfectly accurate, but I will be needing to resort to a plastic bag, I think. And the merino gloves? What was I thinking?

It was good to get home, shower, eat something and then hand wash stuff in cold water to see how long it will take to dry when hanging up inside on a wet day. Then, settle down with a nice cup of tea and brush up on my Spanish.

Mi bolsa está mojado. My pack is wet
Mis zapatos están muy mojadas. My shoes are very wet.
Lo siento por el charco en el suelo. Sorry about the puddle on your floor.
¿Tiene una toalla? Do you have a towel?
Tal vez será soleada mañana. Maybe it will be sunny tomorrow.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


It's hard to know how to categorise this book, but I'll take Christof Koch at his word and describe it as a confession, after the style of St. Augustine. It is written, seemingly for a number of purposes: to outline the discoveries Koch and his colleague Francis Crick have made regarding consciousness and its relationship to the biology of the brain; to pay tribute to Crick and work through Koch's grief at his death; to outline Koch's spiritual journey as he moved from childhood Roman Catholicism to a sort of Deism which seems to lean fairly heavily on Buddhism; to work through the issues surrounding a particular moral dilemma encountered  in middle age.

Because of its variety of purposes the book is quite uneven and always surprising, and that is a good thing, on both counts. I bought it because I wanted to know about the neurobiology stuff. Here was one of the world's leading scientists in the field of consciousness setting out his insights in a form accessible to those who cant read all the peer reviewed journals. He does this wonderfully, and it is all interspersed with enough of the autobiographical stuff to help me grasp the meta story: what drives a man to study this stuff and what does studying it do to him? In terms of pure science of course, these questions are crashingly irrelevant, but given the subject matter, they do seem important to me.

Koch's starting point is what philosophers sometimes call "the Hard Question"; i.e. the mind/body question. That is, how can immaterial things have an effect on material things? How can something as ephemeral and abstract as my thought - "I will go to the shop and buy a Time Magazine" - convert itself into real, measurable phenomena in the material world - movements in my muscles, the movement of a ton of metal down the road, the transfer of cash, the transport of some printed paper. A related question is the nature of consciousness: what is this "I" that is capable of deciding whether or not to buy a magazine? Koch's response to these questions has been a lifetime spent at the forefront of neuroscience investigating the structure and function of the brain. Influenced by thinking in information theory, he is convinced that consciousness is a function of systems that are both complex and integrated. The more complex a system is, and the more its various component parts are integrated with each other, the more it will be sentient. That is, the more consciousness it will possess. The human brain is enormously complex and each of its component parts is connected with each of the others in manifold ways, so the human brain is conscious. Stop some of that integration, and the complex brain will stop being conscious, as happens in anaesthesia or deep sleep. Other brains are less complex and less integrated but will nevertheless possess enough complexity to be conscious at some level. As will perhaps some artificial systems.

The argument is carefully laid out, exhaustively backed up with experimental evidence and quite compelling. Quite compelling, but only quite. In the end I'm not sure that the hard question has been answered. Koch has come a long way from Descartes theorising that the soul was housed in the pineal gland, but in the final analysis, I'm not sure his answer is qualitatively any different from Descartes' even though he has quantitatively more data to back himself with. Koch locates consciousness not in one part of the brain but in the brain as a whole but still cannot say how the abstractions of though give rise to material action in the physical world. He makes a case for the rise of consciousness as an evolutionary requirement; that is, it bestows a survival advantage on species to be able to plan and decide, but I don't find this very convincing because of the unconscious mind. The unconscious also seems to reside in the complex and integrated brain, and to have powers of perception and the ability to make decisions; and yet it is... unconscious. Why should evolution not favour increasingly sophisticated zombies over consciousness beings?

But more than this, I find Koch's idea of consciousness to be too static. He has a formula which calculates the level of consciousness according to the complexity and level of integration of a system, but this seems to me to reduce consciousness to a stable, calculable property, when in fact it is a process. And more, it is a process which grows and develops in sophistication over time, even when it is being borne in a system (the human brain) or more or less constant levels of C&I. Koch seems to miss the point of all the great world faiths: they are not systems of belief so much as methods of analysing and promoting the development of consciousness which proceeds in a fairly predictable  pattern.

Koch ends the book regretting the loss of his childhood Catholicism with its comforts and sureties, but he is unable to believe because of his inability to reconcile an immaterial deity with action in the material world. And yet he can only explain the existence of the universe by positing that "some deep and elemental organising principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose I cannot comprehend". So this principle created a universe in, presumably, a similar manner to the way my desire creates movement in my legs and the progression of my car towards the shop. We seem to be back where we started from.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Road Winds Ever On and On

It's a little over a month until we leave for Spain to complete the Camino Santiago de Compostela. Our diocesan synod finishes on September 16 and at 6:50 am on September 17 Clemency and I board a plane. We'll be flying Auckland - Singapore - Paris - Madrid, then catching a train for Sahagun which is where we left off last time around.

All the gear is bought. Our bags are all but packed. This time we know exactly what we need for the walk, so instead of the 15kg I carried over the Pyrenees in 2009, my pack will weigh 6.6 kg without water. The big decisions in buying gear are pack and shoes. My pack is an Osprey Talon 44, which is robust enough, quite comfortable, and weighs about 1 kg. Clemency has a Vaude Tour 50 which is slightly heavier but has a trampoline type harness and suits her better. Both packs, though compact and light are a bit larger than they need to be. We could have got away with 35 litre ones, but these allow enough extra space to carry lunch without the annoyance of bags dangling from the sides. I have chosen Asics Gel Arata shoes, which have so far proven comfortable, and which I hope will be as good as the Salomons I wore last time. Clemency has a pair of very light but very robust Adidas walkers.

It will be autumn in Spain in mid September. The first few days will be continuing across the Meseta, with flat trails, overhead sun and little shade; but once we get to Astorga we will be into the hill country and the weather promises to be a bit less predictable. There is the likelihood of rain and the possibility of frost. The middle hours of the day will be very warm. So, as far as  clothing goes, the idea is to wear lots of very light layers. We will board the plane in walking gear and carry one change of clothes, with perhaps one additional set of socks and underwear. The packs are small enough to just sneak in as hand luggage, but the large folding knife in mine will mean it will have to be checked in.

So, my gear list for the Camino is as follows:

1 Osprey Talon 44 pack, with hydration bladder, pack liner and pack cover
1 pair Asics Gel Arata shoes.
1 pair Teva sandals
3 pair socks
2 pairs lightweight hiking pants with zip off legs.
3 T shirts (1x merino, 2x polypropylene)
3 pairs underpants (polypropylene)
1 lightweight merino pullover
1 lightweight polarfleece jacket
Waterproof jacket (lightweight Macpac Goretex )
Waterproof overtrousers
1 season sleeping bag (packs down REALLY small)
2 neck scarves
Large enamel mug
Folding cutlery set
Lightweight hiking towel
Cell phone and charger
Camera and charger
1 well worn copy of John Brierley's Camino de Santiago Maps
Various documents
Small medical kit to treat blisters, headaches and other ailments I might be prone to.

The sandals act as casual footwear when exploring in the afternoons, but are robust enough to walk in if necessary. The enamel mug acts as plate, bowl and cup though usually not simultaneously. Clemency will take a journal, but otherwise we won't carry any books. The camino will be a fast from reading.

The other preparations are coming along just fine and dandy. My fitness level will be adequate and I'm passably confident my knees will be up to the task. I know enough Spanish to get by. All the tickets are booked except for the return train (Santiago - Madrid) and the only major things  I have to do now are to buy the Spanish sim cards and make sure the cat's medicals are sufficient to put her in the cat home for a month. I don't think she is as overjoyed at the prospect as we are.