Kung Raiya, the silly twit!

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged activist Kung Raiya with incitement to commit a felony today for printing T-shirts with murdered political analyst Kem Ley’s image and words.

On the 11th of July, I read a ridiculous story from Cambodia.  I have decided to simply let it speak for itself.   The background is that on the 10th of July 2016, a Khmer social activist, Mr. Kim Ley, was shot dead in broad daylight at a Caltex petrol station in Phnom Penh.  The CCTV footage was handed over to the police but has never been been leaked to the media since. So there is not a shred of evidence to support people’s suspicions. Continue reading “Kung Raiya, the silly twit!”

Washington Black

The novel throws light on the warps in human personality caused by complicity with slavery. The shadows of this awful past still mark friendships today.

This novel, by Esi Edugyan, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2018.  It is an unusual novel by its attention to historical detail.  It is a novel about the limits of love and friendship set in the context of slavery.

Esi Edugyan for NOW Magazine.

It starts by describing the life of a young slave on a plantation in Barbados in 1830.  His name is Washington Black.  The prose descriptions of life on the plantation are vivid and harsh.  Washington experiences both wanton cruelty and motherly protection.  When the plantation owner’s brother (Titch) arrives to carry out further scientific research, Washington becomes his technical assistant.  The story of this relationship provides the central focus of the novel.

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In an extraordinary escape from a violent death, the unlikely pair flee the island in a balloon, land on a boat and end up searching for the long-lost father in the Arctic.  The wonderful descriptive and realistic prose help to carry the reader along this strange journey from extreme heat to extreme cold.  The wildness of nature is reflected in the wildness of emotions experienced by Washington as he finds himself abandoned by Titch.

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Yet Washington finds love and direction in the Arctic and with the help of another scientist and his daughter makes his way to London to set up a Marine Museum.   At the end of a journey, Washington rediscovers Titch in Morocco at the edge of the desert engaged in more scientific research.

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This novel reflects on the complexity involved in human friendships.  The expectations and hopes in the partner are never fulfilled and one is left with a frustrating sense of incompleteness.  It could be argued that while Washington was abandoned by Titch, Washington inadvertently abandoned Big Kit, back on the plantation, whom he finally discovers through old slave records, to be his own mother.

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The novel throws light on the warps in human personality caused by complicity with slavery.  The  shadows of this awful past still mark friendships today.

 

“Unsheltered”

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”. Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”.  Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

Two parallel stories unfold in the same place with over a one hundred year gap between them.  In the modern story, Willa Knox, an endearing and unorthodox grandmother, tries to guide her disparate family through the loss of financial security and middle-class status.  Despite long years of toil at third level teaching and journalism, the family is sinking slowly below the poverty level.  The rabidly conservative great Grand-father is terminally ill and requires constant attention. Willa has two children, her darling son Zeke and her rebel daughter Tig.  Zeke’s wife commits suicide and leaves Willa with a grand-son to take care of.

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Kingsolver’s description of this family, of a happy marriage in an unhappy world, is deft, poignant and profound.  The restoration of the sacred family space that is constantly being invaded by work obligations through computer and smart-phone is Willa’s crowning achievement even while she appears to fail.  The radical ecological position of the rebel daughter, Tig, slowly seems more and more coherent while the compromised capitalist position of the dutiful son Zeke becomes morally bankrupt as time moves on.   Tig’s own transformation into caring mother of her abandoned nephew confirms this moral turn around.

The second story revolves around a progressive school teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, who befriends a scientist, Mary Treat, who is researching plants and animals of the area.  The prose in this second story feels more clunky and labored in comparison to the smooth flow and rich family dialogue of the first story.  Yet the effort to unravel the historical origins of the physical houses being lived in serves to emphasize the failure of the Utopian vision of a new society in Vineland.

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Both stories underline the conviction that all modern families are headed into an ecological “Armageddon” from which there can be no escape and no shelter.

In this sense, “Unsheltered” is a prophetic novel.  After reading it, one is faced with a choice.  One can opt for the radical position of Tig, and refuse all compromise with the capitalist economy of consumption. Or one can opt for the compromise position of Zeke to work for the survival of the fittest. There is no more in-between possible.  Either way ecological disaster is only around the corner.

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Milkman

While I was reading Milkman, I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I had to stop to think. I found that I could not read the novel quickly which struck me as quite unusual. Each minor, seemingly insignificant, incident in the story seemed to me pregnant with deeper meaning (the discovery of the cat’s head on the road home, for example).

Milkman is the most interesting Irish novel that I have read in years.  Three good friends of mine grew up in the troubled heartlands of Belfast.  I also spent some time in a home for young offenders in the early eighties in County Down and as a hospital chaplain in Belfast in the early nineties.  These experiences enabled me to appreciate that Anna Burns has captured a historical “truth” in her novel in a surprisingly similar way to Caroline Brothers in her novel, The Memory Stones, about the military dictatorship in Argentina. Continue reading “Milkman”

Fundamental Freedoms in Cambodia

The Fundamental Freedoms Monitor from April 2017 to March 2018 was published two months ago. This report analyses how the three fundamental freedoms; of association, of expression and of assembly, were practiced over the period.

This was the second year of such a thorough and systematic monitoring process. The report also studied individual cases where personal liberty was unjustly infringed. The conclusion points to a progressive deterioration in the practice of these freedoms in Cambodia over the second year as compared with the first.

While the statistics back up the anecdotal evidence of a severe curtailment of the three freedoms over the last year, it is nonetheless interesting to observe how poorly Government officials and the public actually understand these three freedoms as they are enshrined in the Constitution.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile for international agencies working in Education here like JICA, VVOB and others along with the International and local NGOs to collaborate with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport through the Teacher Training Colleges to help ensure that the syllabus for the Civics and Morality studies includes these three fundamental freedoms. If the trainee teachers are clear about them, then their students will become clear about them. In this way families will become clear about them and civil society will be strengthened.

If these agencies ignore the Fundamental Freedoms Monitor, then they risk undermining the education development that they profess to be working for. Of course this includes Jesuit Service Cambodia!

Mountain Mindfulness

Ravens squawked in delight. Everything else was silent. There was nobody on the mountain. Then I knew. I really knew. God was there.

Sgurr Nan Each 

Sgurr Nan Each is not an impressive Munro mountain. It emerges gently on the east side of a ridge joining it to two larger Munros and it nestles humbly behind the high ridge of Sgurr Mor to the North. It is thus not visible from the road that runs from Inverness to Ullapool nor indeed is it visible from any surfaced road anywhere. In fact, the only place that the summit can be clearly seen is from the bank of Loch Fannich to the South. Only midgie lovers hike in to visit Loch Fannich. It ranks a mere 266th among 282 Munros in Scotland.

Yet this mountain now occupies a special place in my heart. On the 18th of July this year, I climbed across from Sgurr nan Cloch Geala to reach Sgurr Nan Each, my 200th Munro. It was fitting that I climbed this last Munro as I was preparing to return to the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia, having completed my sabbatical break.

With a little help from my mountain log, I can remember each and every one of my Scottish Highland mountain hikes; the weather on the day, the steepness of the slopes, the width of the streams, the height of the trees, the strength of the wind, the type of animals or people that I met on the route. In particular, I can remember vivid moments of beauty or challenge that resonated with my spiritual journey.

Spiritual Exercises

These memories are, in fact, similar in power and potency to certain contemplations and meditations that I experienced during the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. My mountain journey seems to run parallel to the journey that I undertook while following the Spiritual Exercises. This year in March, I completed the 30-day retreat for the third time. While I received many graces during the retreat, I also noticed one huge challenge that needed to be faced. Sgurr Nan Each will remain in my memory because while staying for a short while on the summit, I realised that I am now facing down some fierce inner demons in a definitive and decisive way. This is the real challenge.

Four family members have recovered from alcohol and/or drug addiction. I have learnt from them about the addictive power of disordered desiring, thinking and acting. When Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members speak about inner demons, their words carry an authenticity that I have rarely met elsewhere. The 12 steps programme seems to reveal the depth of these previously unnoticed disorders in the soul. It is as if the spontaneous combustion and energy at the heart of the inner psyche is oriented already towards self-centredness rather than other-centredness.

As St Augustine insisted, only an inner gift of grace from the depths can free the soul from its own prison. Outside encounters can provoke a crisis that leads to openness to receive the inner grace. The social welfare people had threatened to take my cousin’s daughter away from her. A mother’s love became her primary motivation for recovery.

Cairngorms and Scottish Highlands 

When I arrived onto the top of Sgurr nan Each, it felt like the end of a journey that began in Ballymun in 1989 when Michael Paul Gallagher gave me a present of a book on the Cairngorms. Presumably he felt that I needed to open my horizons beyond repeated ascents of Irish summits. I remember reading out from the appendix at the back of this book to the other members of my community at dinner. I was keen to explain to them that the list of mountain fatalities in the Cairngorms proved statistically that this mountain range was in fact the most deadly in the whole of Europe, despite the fact that the Dolomites and the Pyrenees were much higher mountains. The key fatal factor proved to be the appalling and unpredictable weather. The wind tended to push people over the edge and then the cold did them in.

So I heard the call. After my theological studies finished in Dublin in 1991, I was allowed a Scottish holiday. Once my companions heard of my plan for this expedition, none could join me on it. I cycled across to Glencoe first for a few days preparatory climbing before crossing the Highlands to Loch Morlich in the heart of the Cairngorms. In Glencoe, the mist was down to the road on the day that I set forth to conquer Bidean Nam Bean. Since the summit was only four hundred feet higher than Carrauntoohil in Kerry, I figured that I was well prepared. This was a foolish assumption. After snaking my way up the steep zig-zag trail through the forest out onto the wind-swept ridge, my rain-soaked map began to disintegrate. I reached the summit cairn shrouded in black mist. Now all I had to do was follow the compass bearing down safely. Bidean Nam Bean had other plans…

Mountain Highs and Lows

While descending down a steep incline which I had persuaded myself was a trail, I found that I had to face the rocks and grass while lowering my boots gingerly down to the next foot-hold. I could see an inviting little lochan about 500 feet below which signalled safety. Suddenly while standing on a grassy ledge, the clumps of grass gave way simultaneously and I was falling a good 10 feet into space. Luckily, a large slab of rock awaited me which smashed into my back and legs and knocked all the wind out of my lungs. I lay there for about 10 minutes wondering how much damage was done. I could move my toes so my spine was intact. My arms and legs seemed okay.

My left ankle hurt but I could leave it strapped inside the boot. I managed to hobble down the mountain and crawl back to the hostel. I had to rest there for three days with no climbing or cycling. Bidean Nam Bean had nearly killed me. About nine days later, I was ready for another big climb, this time in the Cairngorms. Once again the weather was terrible. I hiked across rough terrain for six miles to arrive at the base of the mighty Braeriach. There I found two groups of climbers who had turned back from the ascent as the wind, rain and mist promised only misery and danger. I sort of indicated that I would, of course, soon turn back also.

But I went up into the thickening mist, the thickest that I had ever experienced. Relying on the compass and the watch, I timed each leg so that I would know when to turn to find the narrow ridge up. At the top of the second incline, I had a decision to make. Turn back to safety, or trust the compass and watch in the darkest of mists. Slowly and tentatively I moved out onto the ridge feeling the increased exposure but not seeing any difference. Gradually the mist thinned out and the rain stopped falling. I emerged onto the summit of Braeriach and found the cairn. The wind was dying down. Slowly I edged along the path over the sheer drop into the corrie lake on the North side and found my way down onto the next ridge leading across to Carrauntoohil (they have one also). After a while I stopped to take a rest and to look back up the gentle ridge that I had just descended.

Suddenly, without warning, the mist lifted like a blanket being removed from a bed and the sun came out. Three corrie lakes with three cliffs arranged in a descending sequence stood before me, each one majestic in its own right. The sun caught the snow and ice remaining on the cliffs which shimmered in the sunlight. Ravens squawked in delight. Everything else was silent. There was nobody on the mountain. Then I knew. I really knew. God was there. He was speaking to me like He had spoken to Job; “you puny worm, who are you to climb my mountain in this weather? Now behold what I am showing you. No-one has ever seen these three corrie lakes like this before and no-one will ever see them like this again. This is my gift to you. Enjoy it and be gone”. I stood in awe and wonder at the magnificent craggy architecture and knew that I would never forget it as long as I live. I turned around and jogged down to the Devil’s point and then down from the col into the Lairig Ghru from which it was only a three mile jog to reach the base of Braeriach and then a six-mile trek back to the hostel. I took the train back down to Stranraer and home to Dublin.

The Hammer, the Horse and the Princess

Every three years, I am allowed return to Ireland from the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia. Each time I slip over to Scotland for a mountaineering expedition. I usually climb alone but I have had companions for about 50 of my 200 Munros. These companions only number three; the Hammer, the Horse and the Princess. The Hammer, being local, preferred to camp. So we used to divide the extra equipment and gear in proportion to body weight which meant that his pack was usually twice as heavy as mine. This extra load did not prevent the Hammer from pulling me out from a stream in spate after I slipped on the log crossing it. With a single-handed Highland twist, he managed to pull me right back up onto the log and saved me from a right battering in the storm-filled stream.

On another occasion, I chose an unconventional route of descent off An Liathach (the fortress) in the Torridon Hills. We clambered down a steep gully of large boulders thinking that their size would prevent them from moving. This was a serious miscalculation. The whole road began to move under our feet and we had to dance a jig to prevent our legs being crushed under the rapidly moving boulders. From time to time, we could throw ourselves to the side of the gully onto the steep grass for a rest while the boulders stopped moving. As the Hammer’s weight with pack was considerably heavier than mine, his acceleration on the boulders increased more rapidly and his struggle to prevent himself being crushed had to be more energetic. Fortunately for me, each time we ended up on opposite sides of the gully so that he could only glare murderously across at me. We survived this ordeal.

The Horse is the fastest walker across rough terrain and gradual slopes that you are ever likely to meet. He received his nickname in our scouting days. The only thing that slows him down at all, are steep slopes. So it is important, when planning a route with him, to have a few steep slopes at judicious intervals. Otherwise you spend the whole day in a permanent jog to catch up with him. However for long routes with many Munros in one day, there is no better companion to pull you along. We once climbed up onto Lochnagar in the Cairngorms and then around four other Munros including Cnoc Mor an tSagairt, descending a long track down alongside Loch na Muice. The Princess comes from a far country and loves to take photographs of Highland scenery. So it is wiser to plan walks with her when the forecast is bad. She walks much faster in the mist and rain than in the sunshine.

Once while staying at the remote hostel at Loch Ossian, the old warden invited a mighty stag with enormous antlers to manoeuvre itself inside the hall door and then through the dining room door to receive his supper from the warden’s hands. All of us in the hostel just gazed in amazement. None of us had witnessed such trust between a deer and a human being before. While staying at the same hostel a young German couple invited me to join them for an afternoon swim in the lochan beside the hostel. I duly obliged and politely changed into my shorts. The couple did not change into anything. They just stripped naked and jumped in. The next morning, the blonde bombshell again invited me for a swim so I glanced at the scowling boyfriend. She said; “he not come, he does not want, just you and me”. I told her that, unfortunately, I had just put on my porridge and could not leave the stove while it was cooking.

Perhaps those long hours spent tramping through the wilderness have facilitated a corresponding inner journey away from illusions and delusions to the truth about myself and my disordered desiring. St Ignatius of Loyola set the goal of the Spiritual Exercises as freedom from disordered desires so as to be able to discern well. Maybe I never really understood the meaning of these words until now. He spoke of disordered attachments but the modern word might now be addictions. One could also say that the goal of the AA twelve step program is “emotional sobriety”.

How Things Fall into Place

The practice of Buddhist meditation has a similar goal. Mindfulness is helping many people wake up to their imprisonment and addictions. However, if my mountain journeys mean anything then it is clear that there can be “no gain without pain”. One has to say no to every false idea, emotion and desire. There can be no compromise or surrender. We need to find our truth and live it fully. We have to let go of all our dreams in order to love our mysterious God fully with our whole heart. Only then can things fall into place in our lives.

Education in the Age of Fake News & Artificial Intelligence

Educational Frontiers Conference 2018

The conference on Educational Frontiers at the Ateneo De Manila University from 3rd– 6th of October 2018 opened with a presentation of scientific research on The Truth about Youth by Gino Borromeo. While this presentation outlined the significant characteristics of the millennial generation who are media-savvy and ecologically concerned, it failed to draw attention to crisis parameters such as the high level of obesity among modern youth while noting clearly their lack of political engagement.  The epidemic of obesity is surely a manifestation of a deeper relational disorder in families than those we have witnessed in previous generations. This conference on the first day was followed by three break-out sessions, or workshops.

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A workshop from the Sanata Dharma University in Indonesia showed how both Muslim and Christian students can follow a common course when the topics are sensitively chosen.  In this way, they can learn about the other traditions and appreciate the goal of religious harmony in society. In the afternoon, the Institute of Catholic Leadership from San Francisco University led a reflection on how to serve the marginalised children in disadvantaged parts of the globe by supporting the education of their teachers.  Another workshop showed how drama can be used to encourage positive discipline with students who are troubled.

Intercultural Education 

The second day began with a conference on Intercultural Education by Dr Christine Halse from the University of Hong Kong. It was interesting to notice that research backs up the observations that children who learn in an intercultural setting do better academically and relationaly than children who learn in a single cultural setting. However the question and answer session indicated that this intercultural approach has difficulty integrating former majority groups who feel oppressed or victimised. In particular, real challenges are being experienced in engaging with traditionalist or conservative communities.

Laudato Si’ and Communal Discernment

I attended the workshop “Learning and Teaching Laudato Si in a Cultural Context”.  It outlined how all our other educational challenges have now been subsumed under this primary ecological concern. We will either collaborate to reduce global warming or we will leave a desolate world to the next generation. As the presenter from Timor Leste had become ill before departure at the airport, I was asked to replace him by giving a presentation Communal Discernment and the Xavier Jesuit Education Project in Cambodia.

Reflective Pedagogy and Personal Style 

Two of the workshops that I attended on the third day will stay with me for a long time. The first was on coaching of new teachers on the job in Reflective Pedagogy (Ignatian Pedagogy). The fascinating and innovative aspect of this workshop was that it showed how teachers with limited experience in the school can become helpful mentors to new teachers.  The model is still the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius where the vision, mission and goals of the school become the truth to be known and loved by the new teacher and the coach is the spiritual advisor who helps empower the new teacher to become the teacher that they are meant to be rather than a clone of some other teacher.  This happens not according to some preconceived standard of good teacher but in a spiritual process where the new teacher both appropriates the school culture and at the same time realises his or her own personal style and charism as a unique teacher who will be irreplaceable.

Mindfulness Practice in Schools

This workshop was followed by another interesting one on “Mindfulness”.  The person responsible for student discipline in the large Xavier School outside Manila explained how she had introduced mindfulness programmes into the school.  One reason she did this was her conviction that students with discipline problems were often not present to the situation so they did not realise how disruptive their behaviour actually was.  Another reason was that so many students and teachers complain of stress.  The invitation to all students to disconnect from every outside stimulus for three minutes silent time at several moments each day seems to have helped calm people down significantly.  The program is easy to prepare as it involves few words and peaceful music.  It works best if the teacher leads the programme in class.  Students are free not to participate but they must be quiet for the duration.  It is not religious so the program can be used for all students.

The Ignatian Paradigm in Student Formation 

On the final day of the conference, Fr Michael Garanzini expounded on the Frontiers in Jesuit Education. He underlined the centrality of the study of the Humanities for the development of practical wisdom and moral conscience. He highlighted the extent of the worldwide Jesuit network of schools, colleges and universities.  He lamented the lack of collaboration in responding to the challenges of the modern world.  However it was noted that graduates of these schools do not resemble each other nearly as much as do Jesuit novices from different countries. The graduate from Sogang University in Korea will be quite different from the graduate of the Ateneo De Manila in the Philippines, yet the Vietnamese Jesuit who has never traveled abroad will share a similar world view to the Jesuit from El Salvador even if neither has ever met anyone from their respective countries.

In this sense the formation of lay people following the Ignatian paradigm may not be as deep as the formation of religious people.  This issue was not addressed at the conference.  However it was also clear that despite all this common formation and understanding, and notwithstanding the huge progress made in collaboration with others in recent years, Jesuits who understand each other well still have difficulty in collaborating together on apostolic projects.  Fr Garanzini confirmed that this has always been and still remains a huge stumbling block to the effectiveness of Jesuit educational programs. It is somewhat painful to realise that the principle challenges to our apostolic effectiveness in education are not really external at all.  They are internal.  Our context in Cambodia is perhaps no exception to this general rule.

Spiritual Insights and the Catalyst for Educational Reform

Hence this conference served to confirm the key spiritual insights about emotional sobriety that I gained during my sabbatical last year in France and Ireland. These insights concern our current efforts to help transform the Cambodian education system.  These insights are somewhat controversial so I hesitate before sharing them. My next blog will be entitled “Catalyst for Education Reform in Cambodia”. In this future blog, I will share these concerns for further reflection and dialogue.