Cruise on the Seine 2020

I have just been for a two-day cruise on the Seine, from Sunday afternoon to today (Tuesday). I managed to get some pleasant sailing between the long hauls upwind under power. Welcome to my little world outside churchy subjects…

Last August (2019), I explored the part of the Seine between the point of the word “Seine” to the west of Les Andelys. I went a little to the south of Vernon. This time, I launched near the second set of locks at Notre-Dame de la Garenne to avoid doing the same segment of the river as last year. Just nearby, there is a launching ramp at Le Goulet.  I sailed past Giverny and Bonnières-sur-Seine and turned back at Vétheuil at the east of the meander. I could have continued to the third set of locks, but was concerned about time.

As I mentioned in some of the short videos (strung together), the Eure is one of the most beautiful and poetic parts of Normandy. This is Impressionist country, the Giverny of Claude Monet. Debussy lived for a time at Pourville-en-Mer on the Normandy coast near Dieppe. It is suggested that the light in this part of the world is conducive to Impressionist art. It must be something to do with the sea air and the topography of the land. I am also a fan of Camille Pissaro and have seen several special exhibitions in Rouen. I could believe it as my little boat forged ahead under sail or power through the backwaters and alongside the wild islands.

I spent the time entirely alone, far away from fear of viral diseases, whilst seeing people emerging from their homes with expressions of joy and hope. According to mainstream news, the virus is declining. Whether or not there will be a second wave like the Spanish Flu, that is another matter. France will not lock down again, but will take the proper precautions (we hope). Away from crowds of people in places of mass tourism, work and social life, the world is completely “normal”. Every species of bird sang melodiously in the woods, with the cuckoo and the wood pigeon. With the fragrance of leaves and earth, was I already in paradise.

It is different from the sea, which has its own soul and consciousness. In the videos, I am less poetic than terre à terre, concerned about the mechanics of sailing and camping on board such a tiny boat. I would wake up in the small hours with an aching back, but would then return to les bras de Morphée and weird dreams. Only this morning, I thought of the Spirit moving over the waters as I rose early and found steam on the glass-smooth surface with thousands of insects flying or “rowing” on the surface (water boatman).

The Seine is one of Europe’s great rivers with the Loire, the Danube, the Elbe, the Rhine, the Garonne, the Rhône, the Thames and so many more. Each river has its story to tell.

I need to learn about video presentation and how to edit videos…

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Whitsun 2020

Whitsun 2020. Mass of Pentecost Sunday according to the Use of Sarum with sung Officium, Sequence and Communion.

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Whitsun Vigil 2020

Here is my Whitsun Vigil according to the Use of Sarum but with the biblical readings in English.

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Informal Conference for Pentecost

I have put on this informal conference outside the liturgy, since I will not be preaching at the recorded Vigil or the Mass of Whitsun Day. The theme is habitual with me, the emphasis on the esoteric dimension of Christianity more than the moral, cultural and political aspects.

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Science or Ideology?

I am quite amazed to see people floundering in the present crisis, as I find myself doing so myself. We are victims of propaganda and half-truths, even to ideologies and discourses that are hardly more sophisticated than those of Goebbels in the 1930’s. I don’t have doctorates in microbiology and epidemiology, but I do think I have a reasonably logical mind formed by studying philosophy at university and taking an interest in the subject over the years.

What is science? Philosophically, it is certain knowledge derived from premises that are trusted to be reliable and obtained by rigorous logical reasoning. In the natural sciences, knowledge is obtained through a theory being subjected to a controlled experiment with repeatable results. If it works reliably, then we can count on the knowledge thus obtained and take appropriate action. I have never hidden my scepticism about Foundationalism, but this is an Aristotelian definition I was taught at university in Rome. Aristotle divided science into three categories, each with three subdivisions. In this attempt at producing a theory that would be totally objective and represent truth, we find ourselves in the domain of knowledge (epistemology). Scientific knowledge would bear upon matters whose principles do not change. It is Foundationalist, working rationally from principles or starting points (Ἀρχαί). We also have a hand in metaphysics and the reality of Universal Ideas.

Whether we are foundationalists or anti-foundationalists, use only logic in our reasoning or whether the creative imagination has a role to play, some of us are deeply distressed by the current crisis and how it is being politicised and made into ideology. I noticed this very early on when some of those calling themselves scientists seemed to be no further advanced than plague doctors from the seventeenth century! There is even debate about the use of masks and other devices for quarantine isolation to slow the spread of infection. The old bird beak was a kind of crude mask even if it served only to spare the wearer from the atrocious smells of biological decomposition!

This is not the only use of the word “science” to hide a thinly veiled political ideology. I have noticed the shift from “global warming” to “anthropogenic climate change”. If pollution in the atmosphere and related environmental problems are the subject of empirical science, why is it all so political? The same questions are asked about SARS-CoV-2 and the frequent observation that it is caused by man disrupting the natural environment for profit. Perhaps mankind is the disease, and the virus would be the cure. Get rid of a few million “useless eaters” without anyone having the legal or moral responsibility and guilt for it, and there’s the solution to the scourge of intensive farming. How convenient that among all the places where people have to work, there are new clusters of infection in slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants! How convenient an explanation!

If it were to be pursued empirically, viruses do not attack their human hosts on the basis of political ideology, but on that of purely biological parameters. Why the contradictory disagreements between scientists like Dr Neil Ferguson and Dr Gupta (Sunetra Gupta: Covid-19 is on the way out)? Is it science or unproven theory coming from speculative people with scientific qualifications? One might be a veterinary surgeon by virtue of having a BVSc and MRCVS qualification and speculating about animal pathology. It is another thing to apply a diagnosis and treatment to cure a sick or injured animal. Does the government lock down the population for the years it would take to come up with a vaccine, supposing such is possible? Is the virus on its way out as we would dearly wish? Which expert is more likely to be right?

In the USA, the division between “get back to work” and “lock down until vaccine” is more radical and angry than here in Europe, where it all seems to have morphed into the “Swedish model” (no strict lockdown but relying on people to take precautions and be careful). The contradiction between the two points of view is fodder for the sensationalist press, pumping out the stuff that confuses us if we bother to pay any attention. As a result, we often become cynical and go into denial – as those who decide that sunbathing on a beach is safer than cramming into a metro train to go to work! Incoherence is offensive to most of us.

The virus does not distinguish according to politics, but prefers crowds of people, especially in metropolitan cities. That’s nothing new. So did the plague in 1660’s London! Those who are generally for continuing the lockdown are in comfortable housing on the coasts or in the countryside. They often have no problem working from home and keeping the money coming in. Not always. I work at home but my upstream clients don’t – so the orders have dried up. We can only hope that things will improve as we convert to the Swedish model from full-blown 1984 with curtain-twitchers and police drones checking on people committing the heinous crime of walking the dog along a country lane. The attestation papers (in France) are behind us now, but we are still not allowed to travel more than 100 km without a serious reason. All that seems reasonable, since we are still blind without a reliable testing / isolating system and most of us can live without hopping on planes to exotic places where we don’t speak the language!

The feelings are less vocal in Europe than in America. We sometime find the attitude saying something like “My father died of Covid-19… How dare you enjoy the nice warm spring on the beach or in the mountains?” Should we all be shut in to mourn the dead? Those who have lost loved ones will react angrily, which is understandable. How far do we go one way or the other? Ideologically, the feeling can go as far as saying “To hell with the economy! We have to eradicate the virus!” That is easy for those who live in comfortable homes with gardens and jobs at home, less so with a large family crammed into a small flat and who have run out of money and have no work. The lefties might rejoice in the drastic reduction in carbon emissions due to reduced road vehicle and air travel. The environmentalist might celebrate the virus as an example of the planet healing itself.

I have come across opinions like the right-wing being more religious than the left – and that the lack of religious belief makes leftists more inclined to catastrophic predictions, of which those surrounding a global pandemic are only one form. Predictions that natural resources would be exhausted within ten years and that human population growth is exponential (like the virus) are almost a “secular eschatology” like the constant theme of the Parousia or end of the world in Christianity and other religions. It is an interesting theory. We need to keep an open mind. However, religious believers would have more of a notion of hope compared with the nihilism of atheists. Perhaps the difference is there.

Does science help to clarify these ideological differences? The trouble is that many experts are in someone else’s pocket. Let the experts decide according to their theoretical models and no politician is to blame for an intrusive and centralised government, making one size fit all. The transition from government elected according to democratic and business principles to the dark bureaucratic “archon” is particularly to be noticed in the USA and the UK, but also in continental Europe. This is the fodder of the conspiracy theory and our collective archetypes of European Fascism and Nazism, and of dystopian novels like those of Orwell and Huxley. Here in France, the police has retreated to its normal functions other than making sure we don’t drive too far in our cars.

The more Socialist opinion, as prevalent in much of Europe, advocates the financial help of those who have lost their livelihood (as I have been getting in France). The agenda à la Green New Deal is there too. I sympathise but if there is a viable alternative to putting billions of human beings on trains to concentration camps and gas chambers! The problem is there. Could it be that a virus is a perfect crime? You can kill lots of people and not be guilty of murder or crimes against humanity! You escape the gallows! That might sound paranoid and excessive, but we are caught between a rock and a hard place.

I think we can try to begin with science and impartial knowledge, not only in the domain of microbiology and epidemiology, but also in anthropology and sociology, also in economics. The problem in America is the wider opposition between conservative capitalism and socialism than in Europe. I recently read that “only about ten percent of published scientific findings turn out to be reproducible“. What’s wrong? Is ideology or financial interest being touted as science? Then is is not science. Theories about cholesterol, the benefits and risks of certain foodstuffs, are forever shifting. Nothing is tested out and proven conclusively before being called science. Theory is not science!!! Currently, they are debating face masks, and that is nothing new. They were used (or not used) during the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago.

Modelling, like that of Dr Neil Ferguson, has been found to be far off. Those models motivated political authorities to impose lockdowns. The death rate everywhere in the western world, together with large numbers of people left maimed for life, are appalling – but lower than what was anticipated even for a first wave. Mathematical modelling to predict the future often relies on suspect data. It is not science, any more than the theories concerning global warming and climate change.We may be worried about a second wave, but are we going to lock down again in anticipation? Anyone offering to pay?

I would not like to have the responsibility of a head of state, as they balance lives against their country’s livelihood and the very health and well-being of citizens. We are blind, playing games with something we cannot see or even detect in the population at large. We have no science! To what extent is it our shared responsibility, given that too many people couldn’t care less beyond their immediate pleasures? How much authoritarianism are we prepared to accept? Where can we sit on the spectrum of compromise between the extremes?

I try to observe current developments by way of comparing sources of information and where they converge. Even then, we are fighting for some intelligence and something that makes sense, something that isn’t immediately rejected from our minds as half-baked bullshit.

The word science is often a red herring, something to impress uncritical minds. Does science have to be knowledge of total certitude? Is any degree of doubt acceptable? I mentioned the other day reading a New York Times article contrasting the healthy scepticism of scientists and the certitudes of politicians and pundits. Many scientists are indeed quacks motivated by fame or money rather than intellectual integrity. We live in a dangerous world.

I don’t have all or even a tiny amount of the data to make a scientific judgement. However, I do have a reasonably critical mind and a sense of logic, being sceptical of any claim of two contraries being true at the same time. Perhaps I will be told that the future is a boot stamping on a human face forever, to quote the chilling epilogue of Orwell’s dystopia. Then life is not worth living. If truth, beauty and goodness are banished, then it would be better to be elsewhere than this world. The living would envy the dead.

Again, I appeal to critical thought, integrity, hope, the intrinsic value of human life and dignity. This is possible through Christian spirituality and philosophy, the light beyond the Plato’s cave of our political ideologies.

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Sunday in the Octave of the Ascension 2020

Here is my Mass and sermon for Sunday in the Octave of the Ascension. As mentioned in my sermon, it was known in some places as Rose Sunday. This is not to be confused with Rosensonntag in the Germanic world, which is the fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare).

I will record the liturgy of the Vigil and Day of Pentecost, and afterwards will trust that people still being deprived of liturgical services in church and the Sacraments will find other streamed or recorded liturgies. Here in France, churches and other places of worship are reopened but with draconian restrictions like masks and “social distancing”. People were infected in a church in Germany only about a week ago. I will continue to give an informal “spiritual conference” or explanation of the liturgy. It won’t be the kind of service I would want to attend with the same constraints as in public transport and supermarkets and other places where crowds congregate.

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Optimism and Christian Humanism

This is not an easy time for either optimism or humanism when considering the depths of depravity to which human nature can plunge (with a thought of Calvin’s complete pessimism and that of Jansenism). I came across a very interesting article about the current situation by Dr John C. Rao, a conservative Catholic intellectual.

Since the 11th May when the French government partially lifted the lockdown, I have been struck by the contradictions and culpable ignorance about this virus. I recently read a New York Times article that contrasted the humility of scientists specialised in viruses and epidemics and non-scientists (politicians) who seemed to know everything. Indeed, viruses are mysterious things, coming somewhere between brute matter and conscious life. I will take care not to assume certitudes that I cannot attain through not having scientific knowledge or trying to force reality into the mould of wishful thinking.

From the beginning of the epidemic in Europe in February, when it was all happening in Italy but not yet in France, I started to become jittery and moderately hoarded a few non-perishable foodstuffs and hygiene products. I got 4 FFP2 masks, the ones that protect the wearer (to some extent), alcohol hand sanitiser and latex gloves. One should make an effort to take precautions in the face of a very real disease that was killing large numbers of Italians, many more than seasonal flu. All in all, viruses follow a known pattern. Some are less contagious but are very deadly, like Ebola – the stuff of horror films. Others go from person to person like the common cold or the flu. My wife and I bought some things from the Fnac in Rouen, and were coughed at by the person who took our payment at the till. It was a severe cold, bronchitis and laryngitis that lingered on until January. It is that easy!

In history, there have been many epidemics of diseases that man understood even less than now, the plague, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, AIDS, the list is endless. Most of those diseases still circulate in Africa, Asia and South America. The terror is a destroyer of civilisation, down to the family home and children confined to their home and deprived of education and outdoor life. I have tried to come to some philosophical understanding of the virus, but I am likely to be even more in the dark than the most advanced scientific specialist. They represent the ultimate in negative “waves”, terror and depravity. AIDS was no exception with its mode of transmission via sexual relations and blood, two taboos of our civilisation. SARS-CoV-2 is a social destroyer. We have to look at other people, not as potential friends and new social experiences, but as potential sources of infection. I joked the other day in the supermarket about drawing a smile on my mask! Perhaps we can “smile” with the eyes, but we all become stereotypically autistic in that we no longer have non-verbal language. No wonder that so many people are not wearing masks!

It is now transpiring that those who should have known better have overreacted. They panicked and threw their countries into lockdown, from the metropolitan cities to the remotest village at the tip of Brittany. During the two months of lockdown, during which I actually obeyed the rules with intention of respecting the “social contract” and the common good, it was all so surrealistic. The appearance of the world was normal. I did not once encounter a person with a hacking cough, let alone the people dying in hospitals and retirement homes. A virus is invisible and can only be seen with an electron microscope. Are they there or not? Are they like demons? Invisible but virulent? Seeking whom he may devour? The invisible enemy stimulates the imagination, that same imagination that can create as well as destroy. At the time of the plague, people saw the sick die and the terror was real. Now, it only happens on the internet and the news feeds, or on TV for those who still watch it.

Over the past couple of months, we have been subjected to lies and quackery. Surely, doctors know what masks can do and not do. They have been used for more than a century by surgeons to protect the patient from being infected by bacteria in their breath, and during epidemics. They were used during the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago. So, when questions are asked whether they protect the wearer or the person face-to-face with the wearer, blood begins to boil. Sometimes, I have the impression of knowing more than doctors, just by using logic! Politics got into it, and politicians are reputed everywhere for playing fast and loose with truth. The prime example is Dr Neil Ferguson of Imperial College who got his statistic models all wrong, recommended debilitating lockdowns everywhere, and then had hanky-panky with his married girlfriend and thus broke his own rules. Hypocrisy is a very ugly sin!

As with climate science and questions of global warming, I am not a denier but a sceptic. Scepticism means the reserving of judgement until I have knowledge from evidence that gives me a degree of certitude. Even then, not every science is perfect in giving infallibly repeatable results from the same experiments. There is always an element of doubt. I am very afraid of people with excessive certitude, because what they often believe is wrong or based on ideology.

We have had a little bit of a taste of Orwell’s 1984. All sorts of rules came in, and the police were fining people for going for an innocent walk in the countryside, often using drones to keep a watch. We even developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in regard to the Big Brother watching us. It all seemed to be a childish game, except it was ruining our livelihood (I haven’t had a single translating order since 16th March). Have we been living in a science fiction film, some kind of Matrix? I haven’t because I have learned in my life to be free even if outwardly confined – my six months in a monastery, seminary, marriage, so many alternative truths and realities that twist and manipulate consciousness of reality and truth. German Idealism has been a great help to me…

I am not an “anti-vaxxer”. I received most vaccinations current in the 1960’s and 70’s. I had a tetanus booster a few years ago when I trod on a rusty nail. I have never had a flu vaccination. I last had a mild flu in January 2011, and quite a severe one in Paris in the mid 1980’s. I dare say I will have to consider it as I get older. Vaccines have protected me against polio, smallpox (now eradicated), tuberculosis and many other child-killers. I caught measles and was ill from it and recovered, so the disease vaccinated me. However, they have their limits. The present frenzy to come up with a Covid 19 vaccine will take so long that it will be moot in a year’s time. How futile and how academic!

This experience has showed the very real danger of acquiescing with totalitarianism and agreeing to surrender all our freedoms, including our innocent pleasures and pastimes. How would we relive a revolution like 1789 or 1917, or the Nazi Occupation of 1940 that blackened France for four years? Viruses can be human too, and very anti-humanist! I have refused to join the drumbeat about churches being closed. The pandemic in France was largely caused by gatherings of large numbers of people in an Evangelical mega-church, American style, in Mulhouse in the east of France. The bishops went along with the closure, and groups of clergy and laity attributed it all to singling out the Church for persecution. Then, some came up with clever methods for distributing Communion, effectively cheapening the Sacraments. What is the point of it all? Politics or spirituality. In the case of the latter, we can manage without churches, liturgical services and Sacraments for a while as happened during the Plague. There have been excesses from both sides, from the overreacting State and those claiming that the entire crisis was a conspiracy to bring about the Orwellian dystopia.

Dr Rao has a point when he sees the meltdown of human civilisation since the end of World War II and the collapse of Communism in 1989-1991. I too am very concerned about slogans and expressions like “New Normal”, “post-modernity” and even “post-humanism”. He takes a very typical conservative Christian attitude towards the Enlightenment, blaming it for all these dangers and “human viruses”. As someone of a Romantic world-view, the Enlightenment was necessary as was the Renaissance. Science and reason needed, not to be abolished in the name of Christian totalitarianism, but to be re-humanised by restoring the imagination to its dignity as a reasoning and creative principle. This is my big difference, as an Idealist, with the adepts of Christ the King.

There are big problems. I had an intuition from the beginning of the pandemic that the virus itself was an expression of “political correctness”, perhaps even an instrument of genocide that absolved humanity from all moral responsibility. Perhaps it was even following Greta Thunberg’s campaign against climate change by bringing down a leaden cloak against all human pleasures – real pulpit-thumping stuff. These were fleeting ideas in my mind that I reasoned into something a little more coherent. There was an element of a viral disease – and an element of human quackery and political ideology, even of crime and delinquency in governments. A conspiracy to some extent without the wild imagination of the likes of David Icke and his shape-shifting alien reptiles!

What will be the “new normal”? Like many other careful people, I wear a mask to the supermarket, keep six feet away from people and abstain from shaking hands or la bise even with people I know well. Some others do the same thing, and most don’t bother with either a mask or the low risk of catching the virus from the next person in the food shelves. Eventually, more people will drop it. There may be a second wave like the Spanish Flu, or a damp squib. None of us is certain. We seem to be dealing with a force above humanity but inferior to God, some kind of nether-region. What is a “safe” life? We still have cancer, heart attacks and car accidents. We are all mortal – Alles Menschen müssen sterben. Flu kills about 0.01% of those who catch it, and SARS-CoV-2 kills about ten times that. There are other diseases that kill a higher proportion of those who catch it. Where is the line drawn between acceptable and unacceptable risk? For modern bureaucracy and Cartesian rationalism, no risk is acceptable. Is life itself acceptable?

Many people are afraid to return to “normal” life. Trains and buses stuffed to the gills with commuters with all the windows shut! Crowded places of work with the same old corporate totalitarianism. I am lucky, because home is not my “new normal” but my normal. I go out, but don’t commute to work. I live in the country. I think I would be as afraid of crowds and thousands of anonymous human beings in urban spaces. The “flattening of the curve” and the reduction of numbers of new infections is bringing the risk to an “acceptable” level like that of the flu in winter. The “Swedish Model” is quietly being ushered in to replace the excesses of the lockdowns (the risk of infection in a Breton fishing village being somewhat less than in the Paris Metro).

There is an interesting article, Sunetra Gupta: Covid-19 is on the way out. I can’t say whether I agree or disagree with these ideas. Dr Gupta is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, so knows a bit more about it than I do, and the diametrical opposite from the now-discredited Dr Ferguson of Imperial College. We either stand at the doorway of the monstrous second wave, or it’s nearly over. I hope and pray the latter. Read the article with an open mind and compare it with other scientific ideas.

Dr Rao has some good things to say, but is quite simplistic. I see both sides between the notion that everything that happens can be blamed on human civil liability, and the wild conspiracy theory. This experience must serve as a lesson for us all who live in neither normality nor “post-normality” or “post-anything”.

I return to that wonderful little book I have by Rob Riemen, the Dutch thinker, To Fight Against This Age. He calls the ideologies of our time a form of Fascism, and I sympathise with his thought. Fascism is a form of Socialism, collectivism over the individual person. It incites resentment, anger and fear, a need for scapegoats and hatred of personal thought and spiritual life. Other than Christian authors, we need to learn from philosophers like Thomas Mann and Albert Camus with their experience of totalitarianism in the 1930’s and 40’s. The solution to the virus, our quacks and lying politicians, our lockdowns and “new normals” is a return to Christ and to European humanism with its universal values of truth, beauty, justice, and love for life―values underpinning any democratic civilization.

Nobility of Spirit

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