All posts by Bernard Toutounji

Bernard Toutounji is an Australian Catholic writer and speaker. He writes a fortnightly column called Foolish Wisdom (www.foolishwisdom.com) which examines afresh issues within news, culture or faith. One of Bernard’s favourite quotes comes from Edith Stein who said "All those who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not". Bernard is married to Jane and they have two daughters.

Mr, Mrs, Dr…Why have titles?

It is evident that along with the collapse of so many aspects of Western Society from the mid twentieth century onwards, we have witnessed a general casualisation of the way we refer to other people; that is, using their title. Whereas one would always refer to another man or woman as Mr., Mrs., or Miss followed by their surname, these courtesies are now more often than not pushed aside for exclusive first name usage from the introductory meeting. Even those who are entitled to the use of specific religious and academic titles such as Sister, Father or Doctor are more commonly introducing themselves as Susan or Ralph.

Perhaps the last domain where honorific titles are still commonly used is the school classroom. The hands of children are shot up in the air with an accompanying “Sir” or “Miss”. There are however plenty of academics that would like to see the old titles dropped in favour of first names. One of the reasons for this is around the level of disparity between the titles ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. It is said that ‘Sir’ began its usage in 16th century England where male teachers of a lower social standing were needing to assert their authority among largely upper class pupils. ‘Miss’ on the other hand is reflective of the late Victorian era when the majority of women teachers were young and unmarried, giving up work once they did marry. The issue of teacher titles then is often spun around the issue of discrimination against women which coincided in the 20th century with the title Ms. as a default term for the address of women without labelling them as single, married or otherwise.

Perhaps one can sympathise with the call in some quarters then to simply drop titles and refer to everyone across the board by their first name. After all this is the age of equality. We might validly ask if titles really offer us anything of value in our modern and adult society. Admittedly, it is not as easy as it once was to use titles. Once upon a time you knew that a male and female couple living in the same house were married with the same surname, but you’d be taking a great risk to assume that now. Titles have been rendered even more bizarre recently with the official introduction of Mx. for those who wish to indicate that their gender is ‘indeterminate’. In fact Australian government departments are currently in the process of responding to new policies where official forms must allow a person to describe themselves using a term that they are “most comfortable with”. However, the stupidity of allowing a person to identify themselves by whatever ‘gender’ appeals to them at that moment in time is something to be more fully discussed in another article.

So while titles can get all mixed up in the battles of political correctness, I do think that misses the deeper point. The most basic titles are a way to show respect to another person. Titles work on the premise that there is a certain mystique around each person we meet. Why are we all forced to be equally close with the butcher as we are with our brother? Our names are the fundamental identity of who we are and a title acts as a sort of veil reminding each of us that the name of another person is to be treated with dignity. Titles also recognise that we contribute differently to the societal fabric, a man is not like a woman, a woman is not like a man. A doctor does not serve the same function as a priest or a nun. Holding to the foundational notion that all people are equal does not mean we all have to be the same. This is the great problem we have today, we think that equality has to equal sameness.

Especially in the egalitarian nation of Australia, the informality with which we communicate with one other is palpable. Not only are we satisfied to use a person’s first name but we will even choose a nickname for a person we are meeting for the first time! I have introduced myself as Bernard to people before and the next sentence out of their mouth is, ‘pleased to meet you Bernie’. I’m sorry…what?!

I am not necessarily advocating a return to the era of Downton Abbey, but I do prefer a society that respects each of us for who we are and a society that doesn’t assume that we are all the same as everybody else. Titles may seem small and insignificant but they are one pleasant aspect of a cultural heritage that in too many places has slipped away.

Copyright 2016, Bernard Toutounji

Mormons, Muslims and Lazy Christians

Australia’s mostly widely read weekend newspaper recently carried a front page story in which we were informed that a popular Rugby League player would no longer play or train on Sundays so that he could attend his weekly church service. Canterbury Bulldogs star Will Hopoate negotiated the clause into his contract due to what the newspaper called his “staunch devotion to his Mormon faith”. The article went on to quote the 23-year-old who spoke about his desire that Sunday be maintained as a day set apart for rest, worship and charitable work.­ The coverage not only spoke about Hopoate, but carried positive information about the Mormon religion and other high profile Mormon Athletes.

I have no problem with the young man wanting to have a sacrosanct day in his week dedicated to prayer and refection. The world would be a far better place if each one of us, religious or otherwise, also took a day each week to stop and reflect. What I found most interesting in the article though was the obvious novelty seen in what Hopoate was doing. Actually perhaps ‘interesting’ is the wrong word, maybe I should have chosen ‘disappointing’, and for two reasons. First, only two generations ago a newspaper article would have been more likely commenting on the novelty of professional sports actually taking place on a Sunday. Second, it’s disappointing because mainstream Christianity has basically sold out on what were once its core values and that has been left to be picked up by groups such as the Mormons. How many Catholics, Anglicans or Orthodox do you notice standing up for the value of Sunday? How many are instead spending Sunday worshipping at the Cathedral of Saint Westfield or singing the joyful praises of Macy’s?

It’s not only Sunday church attendance though, it’s everything. Think fasting, think lent, think meditation, think morality. Basically all these aspects that were traditionally the identifiers of a person of Christian faith have been ignored by the Christian faithful in the West and picked up by everyone else. (Maybe that is one reason why the same ‘modern’ Christian faithful are shrinking at an alarming rate. History shows that fervent Christianity grows a hundred times faster under persecution and life is seemingly too carefree in the West for most Christians to really bother about their baptismal promises).

As a demonstration of how traditional Christian concepts have become novel, take the annual Islamic period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving known as Ramadan. Each year as Ramadan approaches the news media is awash with feel-good stories of admiration for Islamic families and Muslim individuals who will be living out the great fast. Politicians and senior figures are seen at table after sundown sharing in the evening meal. Don’t get me wrong; there is much to be admired in a fast of such depth, but that a traditionally Christian nation is amused by some annual penitential fasting demonstrates how far the Christian apple has fallen from the tree. Google ‘fasting’ today and you won’t find references to the specific allowances in the Orthodox Lenten observance or the Catholic prescriptions for Fridays; instead it’s all about the health benefits of not spending a lifetime eating whenever we want. I wonder how many Catholics realise that McDonald’s Fillet-O-Fish burger was invented by a smart franchise owner in Ohio in 1962 in response to his Catholic customers who actually took the Church’s prescription of not eating meat on a Friday seriously.

Then of course there is meditation and contemplation. The Christian faith has a rich mystical tradition coming forth from some of the great saintly figures of East and West. Antony of Egypt, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila. Whole communities of men and women have dedicated and continue to dedicate themselves to reaching a deep communion with their God. Yet today’s average Christian is so out of touch with his or her own mystical tradition that when they desire peace they run off the nearest Yoga ashram or Bahai temple to seek out what is embedded in their own heritage.

If Christians are going to really bother being Christian then my humble suggestion is that we learn how to do it properly. As a mainstream group we have become frightfully lazy and we have been showed up time and time again by our brothers and sisters of other faiths who actually take their religious commitment seriously. Like young Will Hopoate, it wouldn’t hurt all of us who are allegedly bearers of Christ to consider how we might more evidently bear the name.

 Copyright 2016, Bernard Toutounji

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small

Clare and LouiseMy wife Jane and I have two little girls, Clare and Louise; Clare turns two this month and Louise is just over six months old. Clare is at a really fun – but albeit all consuming – stage. She loves nothing more than playing outside, and if she is not insisting on being pushed around in her plastic toy car, she is carefully dropping her toys in the wading pool, before picking them out of the water and starting all over again. Louise is beginning to shuffle around on the lounge room floor while learning about the world through studying a range of stuffed animals. Clare will now regularly come and lay down next to Louise on the floor and with an enthusiastic ‘hello’ proceed to take back those stuffed animals which she believes are her own. Everyday our daughters are growing and developing but they really are still just babies. They rely on us for everything, we are their nurturers and their protectors, their friends and their family. Their world is safe and secure because we make it that way for them.

But what if one afternoon in the middle of Clare playing outside I just walked away, leaving her in the backyard by herself with no food, no protection and no shelter. Her smile would fall and the frown would descend into tears, she would cry her eyes out, her nose would run and she would go to the back door yelling ‘Mummy’, ‘Daddy’, not understanding what had just happened. As night began to fall she would cry and cry, tears streaming down her face. She would be hungry and want her milk. She is not old enough to reason out her situation and create or find shelter in the yard. I really don’t know, or do I want to know, how she would cope. Would she even make it through the night?

Alternatively, what if Jane and I decided to go away for the weekend and we left Louise crawling around on the lounge room floor. Having even less capacity than Clare, the little darling would do all she knew, and that would be to cry. Without water or any sort of nourishment I don’t know how long she could last.

It breaks my heart to think of my little babies being abandoned and essentially left to die. Clare’s little laugh and beautiful blue eyes would be no more; the gifts she would one day share with the world would be left unknown. We would never even know who Louise would be, we wouldn’t get to see her dancing around in mummy’s hat and daddy’s shoes, we wouldn’t get to see her grow and learn.

I recall a couple of tragic abandonment stories that came across the media in recent years. In 2014 a newborn baby was found after having being left at the bottom of a storm water drain in Australia for five days. In 2015, in China, a baby survived being buried alive for eight days in a botched up plan by the parents to kill their little son because he had a cleft lip. Once found and while being tended to by doctor’s the boy coughed up a thick black substance which was the dirt he had swallowed while being underground; it was suggested that the rainwater provided the little one with sufficient moisture to have kept him alive.

Every day though, 125,000 little Clare’s and Louise’s are left to die. Actually, in reality they are not left to die, they are killed; killed in what should be the safest place on earth. For 40-50 million infants every year the womb will become a tomb. Imagine a little ten week old baby in the womb innocently sucking its thumb, turning somersaults and swallowing when all of a sudden a light appears and a hollow tube with a knife edged tip connected to a vacuum is inserted. Its job – to tear apart the little being; legs, arms, head and body. The one doing the killing will check they have all the parts before discarding the baby and ticking off the procedure as a success.

As you well know it’s called abortion. In polite language it’s a termination of pregnancy. In reality it is the murder of innocent children. I’ve heard the excuses, the reasons, the justifications but at the end of the day they are no more than delusions and lies. We as modern people in modern nations are murdering our children in the womb and there is no valid reason. As Doctor Seuss once wrote, A Person’s a Person, no matter how small. We have to do whatever we can, according to our own situation, to love all children, the born and the unborn, and to support those who care for them.

Those who are suffering grief following an abortion should search “post abortion healing” for support.

 Copyright 2016, Bernard Toutounji

A Hope Filled Look at New Year’s Resolutions

800px-New-Year_Resolutions_listWell we are currently in crunch time for New Year’s Resolutions. The number of you keeping your resolution is shrinking week by week. It was already at 75% just one week into this year, it will be at 64% by the end of January, and as low as 46% by the end of June. The statistics are part of a newly released study out of the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology which indicates that while a total of 62% of us actually make resolutions usually or infrequently, only 8% of that number are successful in achieving the goal they had set for themselves at the start of the year. With such a small success rate perhaps it is little wonder that 38% of us don’t even bother making a resolution at all.

While it can be easy then to scoff at New Year’s Resolutions and dismiss them as only for those who want to lose weight, make money or find love, the choice of goals are often a part of the problem. One other study of New Year’s Resolutions out of Australia found that of those who failed, 35% admitted it was because the goal was too unrealistic, 33% didn’t keep track of progress, 23% forgot about it and 9% said they made too many resolutions. It’s easy enough to say that we want to lose weight but we probably need to instead consider pledging to cut back on the daily soft drink or the nightly bowl of ice cream. If we want to have more money we’ll probably need to create a workable budget instead of buying a greater number of lottery tickets.

However, New Year’s Resolutions can and should form an important part of the ongoing growth of any person, and they can deal with more than fat and finance. As human beings, we actually have an innate need to be making resolutions that are going to better our lives but also the lives of others. Resolutions are actually about anticipation; anticipation that we can be more and give more; that good things are on their way. You might bring to mind an event you are currently looking forward to, perhaps a family celebration, a night out with friends, or maybe you have bought a ticket for a concert later in the year. Sometimes the joy of looking forward to these events can even be better than the event itself which can be over so quickly. We all need to have things to look forward to, this is a resolution to be hopeful about what is before us.

Hope is severely underrated in our modern Western Culture and that ‘hopelessness’ is reflected in an age that has more depression and despair that any before it. This lack of hope is also most often seen in young people. As people with their whole lives ahead of them, this age bracket should be the most hopeful of all. Unfortunately the hope of the young has been trained to focus on consumerism and technology and as is quickly realised, these joys fade. While the annual Boxing Day sales provide a great sense of ‘hope’ for tens of thousands of people, it is a transient hope, and once the credit card has been swiped, the spiral of joy is ever diminishing.

So what we need most deeply are resolutions that are not going to fade. We need to seek to be better people, but that doesn’t only mean we look better in the mirror, it means we are better in reality. It means that we might adopt a resolution to be kinder to a certain person we struggle with, or more patient with a particular family member or we may resolve to be a more positive person and begin to point out the good things in life instead of only alerting others to what is going wrong. Even these noble ideals won’t just happen – we need to have a plan to make that happen by reviewing ourselves ideally at the end of every day. And lastly the beauty about New Year Resolutions is that every day is a new day and a chance to start afresh. It is worth observing that the great saints and heroes of old were not those who never fell, but rather they are those who got up over and over and over again. So all the best with your resolutions for the year ahead. May we all be better people at the end of this year than we were at the start.

Copyright 2016, Bernard Toutounji

Image by Photos public domain.com [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Google We Trust

Google_-G-_Logo.svgI love Google. I use that little search bar numerous times every day. If I want to know what to cook for dinner, study the history of sandpaper or find out the time in Nigeria the method is always the same…Google. And it is a rare occasion when Google lets me down. Sometimes I have only fragments of information but sure enough, more often than not, Google knows what I am after. There are even times when I know the information I need is written somewhere very close by, but instead I’ll search for the information online. There is no doubt that our ability to find information so quickly on so many popular and obscure topics is one of the primary advantages of life in the 21st century. But just as every cloud has a silver lining, so every silver lining has a cloud.

Google was given its name as a derivative of googol which is the number one followed by a hundred zeros. The mission of Google’s two founders was to organize the seemingly infinite amount of information on the web. And it would seem that they really have succeeded. With over 2 trillion searches made through Google last year, it’s clear that the world is keen to get its hands on as much information as it can. And rightly so, for information is a wonderful thing. The word ‘information’ is derived from the Latin stem informare meaning a sort of “formation of the mind”. This etymological meaning helps us to see that information is not only stuff we surround ourselves with, but in a much more profound way it shapes our very thoughts and thus the way we respond to situations.

I remember seeing the phrase somewhere, ‘What you read today, walks and talks tomorrow’. In the way that the food we eat becomes who we are in a physical sense, the information we take into our minds even more truly come out in the choices and thus the people we are. We know that an increasing proportion of adults (and children) in the Western World are entrusting their physical health to McDonalds and discovering the consequences of that. An even larger proportion of the population are entrusting their minds to Google and the online world that it controls. What we need in both cases though is a balanced diet that regulates the body and the mind.

As we have established, there is no shortage of information that can be found online but raw information is only one piece of the puzzle. In a quick handful of Google searches I can find reputable looking information on the best ways to have an affair, methods to evade tax, and abortion inducing pills that can be delivered to my door. However – and this is the clincher – the ability to actually do something is not an indication that a thing should be done.

Long before anyone was able to Google anything, the world set itself on a tangent that would open the pathway for the information revolution, and that was what we now politely refer to as the ‘Enlightenment’ or the ‘Age of Reason’ (as if complete foolishness had reigned until this point). The Enlightenment was a 17th century intellectual movement that emphasized scientific method and individualism over anything to do with faith or tradition. The Enlightened mind was one that was accountable only to itself. Information was divorced from questions of ethics and morality which were said to belong to a separate realm. Now of course there is nothing wrong with reason or science, but as has been seen in the world over and over, ideas without an ethic risk becoming inhumane, because people are not simply machines or mathematical calculations. On a purely physical level an affair is simply an interaction between two persons, but in the human world an affair destroys lives and whole families in ways that are far more than physical.

Of course I am not saying that Google is bad or using the internet is somehow a pathway to infidelity. There are far more subtle examples that affect us every day. What I am saying though is that, as with all human achievements, we should take the internet with a degree of skepticism. It’s not only about what we allow ourselves to read or believe but also the thought patterns that we allow to sink into the depths of our being. As all-knowing as Google may be, the fullness of the human experience will always be more complex than any algorithm.

Copyright 2015, Bernard Toutounji

Image, Wikimedia Commons

Dick Smith Foods, Microsoft & Cooperation in Evil

In 1999 Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith created Dick Smith Foods to provide Australian owned and produced alternatives to the increasing number of foreign owned products. In a number of cases Dick Smith’s determination to support local growers has seen factories reopened, jobs saved and family security restored. Since it began, Dick Smith Foods has given all its profits – some $5.1 million – to over 350 community based charities including the Salvation Army, the Institute for Deaf and Blind Children and the Royal Flying Doctors Service.

Sharing Dick Smith’s desire to support and sustain Australian farmers, I recently put a post on my Facebook page promoting Dick Smith Foods and encouraging people to buy their products. While I usually enjoy a good debate, I was surprised to see one take place beneath my post, with a number of people commenting that they wouldn’t support Dick Smith Foods because of the man’s enthusiasm for national and international population reduction targets.

Now while I don’t agree with his assessment on the population issue (I actually wrote an article on the myth of overpopulation some months ago), it can sometimes be imprudent to reject the good being done in one instance because of a negative aspect in another. Especially in the case of Dick Smith Foods the profits and ideals of the company have nothing to do directly with issues of population control. It is all good and well to stand up to the immorality of the usual ‘life issues’, abortion, contraception, euthanasia etc., but we shouldn’t do that at the expense of not standing up to the immorality of other justice issues such as the right to have a job, earn a fair wage and feed ones family. If we pray for the life of unborn babies on Sunday but don’t support justice for working adults on Monday are we completely balanced?

We all should have an interest though in where the money we spend on food and household items is being funnelled. For many years now a major pro-life institution in the USA has produced an annual listing of the companies that use their profits to support abortion through the massive corporation Planned Parenthood which carries out around 330,000 abortions per year and receives over $500 million in annual government subsidies. Planned Parenthood also receives donations from close to 200 companies that are behind some of the most basic products and services we use every day: Coca-Cola, Kraft, Pepsi, Microsoft, eBay, Levi Strauss, Black & Decker and American Express are just a small handful.

Because we live in what is most evidently a fallen world, the need has long existed to consider how we interact with aspects of that world which do not correspond with our own ethical position. Classical moral theology refers to this interaction as ‘cooperation in evil’ and then draws a very important distinction between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation occurs when we deliberately cooperate with the immoral actions of another person or institution and share in that evil intention. Sending a cheque to support the work of your local abortion clinic would be formal cooperation in evil and is always wrong. Material cooperation on the other hand is when we may cooperate with the immoral actions of another person or institution but do not share in their evil intention. Using Microsoft products (so long as they are not pirated) or drinking Coca-Cola comes under material cooperation. In the realm of material cooperation, moral theologians have all sorts of distinctions, the general idea being that the greater the degree of our material cooperation, the greater the proportionate reason should be for us allowing such cooperation. If all the major toothpaste suppliers support abortion, there is a sufficiently proportionate reason to still buy toothpaste.

Dealing with issues of cooperation in evil is something each person will personally have to contend with continuously throughout life. There is no doubt that we all need to be wary of supporting products and services that are contrary to upright moral behaviour. However, we must also ensure we do not become overly righteous at the expense of what is genuinely good. The Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath because he healed a man on a day dedicated to prayer and rest. Jesus’ response to them was “Which of you, if his son or ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, would not pull him out without hesitation?” The task of discerning good from evil is not always as obvious as we might like it to be.

Copyright 2015, Bernard Toutounji

Are Jesus and Mary appearing today?

The mainstream media in Sydney was recently abuzz at the report of a number of parishioners from a local Catholic church claiming to have witnessed the lips on an icon of the Virgin Mary moving during Mass. The video, which was filmed on a mobile phone camera by a worshipper, has since been seen hundreds of thousands of times and has attracted, understandably, very mixed commentary. The parish priest came out at the time and clearly stated that if anything did occur it was “a personal experience” and not to be misunderstood as a public miracle.

This incident of course is not the first time that a miracle or apparition has been alleged to have taken place. Just a few suburbs over from the above mentioned church is a regular suburban house that has supposedly been weeping oil from the walls for close to ten years following the premature death of the resident family’s teenage son. While the family stills lives in the house it has become a virtual shrine adorned with images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints; there have even been reports of the oil curing those who make a pilgrimage to the house.

Yet topping both of these in the contentious miracle stakes is without a doubt the alleged apparitions which began in 1981, with six children from the small town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina claiming to see the Virgin Mary, not once or twice, but continuously for the past thirty-four years. The messages have been seemingly worthy ones, calling for people to undertake more prayer, fasting and penance. And while the site attracts more than one million visitors a year – putting it just behind the Church-approved apparition sites of Fatima and Lourdes – it seems that after many years of investigation the Vatican is set to reach the conclusion that the apparitions of Medjugorje are inauthentic.

It may appear then that the good Lord and his Mother are kept extremely busy turning up everywhere from suburban Sydney to European farming villages and, if you believe absolutely all the news, Jesus also made himself present to a lady in Newport USA via a potato chip.

While I am happy to declare my belief in the person of Jesus the Christ I just don’t feel the same way about the seemingly endless parade of miracles and apparitions which more often than not take away from the actual Christian message. In case we hadn’t noticed, Christianity is currently going through its fair share of struggles. In a growing age of secularisation, nations and philosophies that were once founded in the Christian faith are falling like dominoes. And Christians themselves are often at the fore of the problem, as they have become weak in faith and conviction. The Christian message is in need of authentic and bold proclamation, the last thing the faith needs is the secular news media to be given further opportunity to mock the faith and all things sacred when well-meaning individuals share aloud that that the Most High God has appeared to them in their home, or even worse, in their snack food.

Of course if Jesus wanted to appear in any of the aforementioned places, He could. If one can create the world and keep is in existence every other challenge must seem fairly mundane, but that is not the point. The Christian faith details that the Father sent his Son to earth and in doing so Jesus taught his message, worked miracles, founded a living Church, died on a cross and rose again. That is the whole story. Revelation is complete and not in need of anything further. Jesus came to earth not just for the people of that moment in time but for the people of every moment in time. The faith has been handed on now from generation to generation for 2000 years, and each person has the freedom to weigh up the evidence and choose to believe it or not.

Perhaps Jesus and Mary do appear to modern day individuals but these are not incidences necessary for salvation. Most believers could probably share a moment when they believed God was “speaking” to their hearts but these are moments to help their own faith. The only miracle that should be shared and proclaimed is the authentic deposit of faith preserved by the Church for 2000 years. Let us not hope or expect for more. As Christ himself said to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen me, blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”.

Copyright 2015, Bernard Toutounji

Image: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why Eat at the Dinner Table?

Where did your family eat dinner last night? In front of the TV? In the car on the way to sport? At McDonald’s? At the dinner table? A survey taken a few years ago in the US, Canada and Britain, found that about a quarter of adults with children under the age of 18 ate dinner together at home seven nights a week. Another quarter said they ate together three or fewer nights a week.

Once upon a time (not that long ago) we know that the situation was different. Each night the dining table would be set with a simple cloth and serviettes, the cutlery and crockery would be laid out and as ‘dinner time’ neared an increasing number of hungry mouths would appear with the question, “What’s for dinner?”

What accounts for this decline in families eating together today though? The data seems to point to two main issues: Overworked parents and over-scheduled children. When mum and dad get home in the evening they are soon in the car again to whisk the children off to sports, music, tutoring, church activities and a host of other events.

Normal Rockwell DinnerThis nightly ritual around the dinner table however is both vital and fruitful: it is what anchors a family together. Sure, the conversation is not always profound and children argue and fidget. And sometimes the deepest and most meaningful times in a family are not at the table at all. However, even with all that in mind there is something unique about the time a family spends around the dinner table eating a meal together.

The security of the dinner table is a central place for the family to return to whether the times are joy filled, sorrowful or somewhere in between. It is the place where the family builds an identity. Stories are passed down, jokes exchanged and the wider world is examined through the lens of the family’s values. Children pick up vocabulary and a sense of how conversation is structured. They learn good manners and proper etiquette, something that will set them up for life. Meal time is often the time that families pray together. Dinner time is not ‘parent time’ or ‘children time’ but it is truly ‘family time’. Coming back daily to the same place helps instill familiarly. When a family closes their front door to world each night and sits down together around the table, they are subliminally stating, ‘this is what is most important to us; this is where we truly exist.’

Striving for regular family meals is not mere idealism. Experts in adolescent development are the ones who are saying that the daily investment in family time pays the largest dividends. Studies show that the more families eat together, the less likely the children are to smoke, drink, take drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables and learn how to socialize. One anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey stated, “If it were just about food, we would squirt it into their mouth with a tube. A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” You might recall the riots in England in 2011, to what extent would that have happened if families were at home having dinner? Especially in an era when divorce and family breakdown are at such high levels, the need becomes all the more urgent for children and parents to set down together and get to know each other once again.

There is no one-size-fits-all for families in regards meal times but it might be of benefit to really take a hard look at your family routine. Is it overbooked? Are you tired and frantic? Will your children be better off with more activities in their week? Why not cut back on a few activities and spend some unstructured time with your family? Start by planning some stay at home family dinners together. Set the table, turn off the TV and enjoy a meal together. Just a thought.

Image – ‘Freedom from Want‘, Norman Rockwell

What Temperament Are You?

I remember when I was engaged to my now wife Jane, one of the biggest discoveries I had to process was learning that she was an introvert. We were at a social function with people we both knew well and it came up that she would be happy to leave at any time. We hadn’t really been there that long and I would have been happy to whittle away the rest of the afternoon amongst friends, so I found myself being rather surprised at the whole turn of events. Actually surprised doesn’t describe it well enough, I was shocked! After all these were close friends!

Now if I was an introvert myself, I likely would have realised this fact about Jane a lot sooner, but extroverts (or at least this one) seem to be more likely to be completely oblivious to the fact that some people are just not like them. Whereas the extrovert in me was energised by being around family and friends, introverts need to be alone to recharge because socialising wears them out. It’s not that introverts are shy – they can be the life of the party – it’s just that they’ll need some quiet time to recover from that party.

This discovery led me to look further into personality types and I came across the temperaments, which are the aspects of an individual’s personality that are related to behavior and reaction. Our temperament is something we are born with and while it is molded through our choices and experiences, it is never completely erased. While a person is not the sum of their temperament, understanding the temperaments can lend us a vast insight into ourselves and those around us. In understanding the temperaments I came to understand that it wasn’t just that those who were not like me were strange, but rather their strengths and weaknesses were different.

It was Hippocrates, five centuries before Christ, who is thought to have turned the basic theory of temperament into a medical theory so the names of the four temperaments actually stem from various internal fluids around the liver, heart, lungs and kidneys. The temperaments are a key to unlocking the mystery of ourselves, those we love and those whom we exist with at work and at rest.

Sanguine – If you are fun-loving, enthusiastic and sociable then this temperament may be yours. The sanguine is extroverted, adventurous and never seems to run out of energy. Optimistic and not a grudge holder the sanguine is an all-round people person.

Choleric – The choleric is the person who gets the job done…and fast. This temperament has an energy that is ready to overcome any opposition and seems ever confident. Cholerics are born leaders who can think independently and live a disciplined life.

Melancholic – Idealistic, reflective and serious are the traits of the Melancholic person. These are often the sort of people who have become great writers, composers and artists. They might take some time to form friendships but once they do they are very faithful.

Phlegmatic – If you know someone who is diplomatic, patient and calm under pressure then chances are they are have a phlegmatic temperament. The phlegmatic is a peacemaker who more than anything abhors conflict and confrontation.

Most people are a mix of two primary temperaments and there are a host of online temperament tests that can help you discover more about who you are (although you can likely already take a guess from the quick descriptions above). One of the better books I’ve read on the subject is ‘The Temperament God gave you’ by Art & Laraine Bennet. It’s certainly worth putting on your wish list for next Christmas.

Due to my own choleric/melancholic temperament it took Jane a while to understand that I had a tendency to whip out my phone mid conversation with her, to call the person that we were discussing needed to be contacted for whatever reason. Alternatively it has taken me a while to understand that Jane is never going to do anything like that because a phlegmatic/melancholic such as herself, needs time to plan and phrase the appropriate questions and then build up the courage to dial the number and engage in the conversation.

The aphorism “know thyself” was inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Ancient Greece. It was and still is a reminder that without knowing who we are we have little hope of really truly knowing much else. The temperaments certainly provide us with a place to begin that study.

10 Steps to Beat Pornography

pornographyPornography is a big problem in modern society. Actually, no. Pornography is a huge problem in modern society. Did you know that 10-15% of all search engine requests and 20% of smart phone searches are for pornography? Studies show that 90% of boys and 60% of girls are exposed to pornography before they are 18 years old. In addition, 70% of young men and 20% of young women view pornography every week and pornographic sites have more monthly visitors than Twitter and Amazon combined.

While the numbers are high, especially amongst males, it is not true that all men view pornography, and we must not allow ourselves to believe that pornography constitutes normal sexual behavior. However, especially for young men, if any sort of regular pornography use is not dealt with swiftly it risks becoming a debilitating addiction.

The good news is that authentic religious observation and involvement has been shown to contribute in a major way to lessening pornographic use and dependence. The following then, are ten steps to help beat pornography. The steps focus on the spiritual life but some of them will require major changes in one’s practical life, but if we are sincerely determined to regain control of who we called to be as men and women in Christ there is no other way.

  1. Commit to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion every day. Holy Communion is food and strength for the journey and if we don’t have it atop our list then we are not serious about the battle. Getting to Mass everyday will almost certainly require earlier mornings or shorter lunch breaks but how much do we want success?
  2. Seek out the sacrament of confession as often as needed. If you are in the midst of the battle consider getting there at least once per week, but if you need to go every day, go every day. Remember this sacrament is the chamber of mercy and this is where we can really ask God to transform our hearts.
  3. Find a Spiritual Director (usually a priest) who you can meet with regularly. Pornography is a sin and all sin thrives in secrecy. We must shine a light on the dark areas of our life and call them out. You must be completely open with your spiritual director about the struggle so that the path to healing can begin.
  4. Spend 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening in prayer. Depending on where you are you might be able to spend this time in a church, but if not, find a quiet place where you can simply talk to God. You may begin by reflecting on a short Scripture passage and you may additionally find it helpful to write your prayer into a journal. Most importantly, the bulk of this time should be an attempt at heart-to-heart conversation.
  5. Pray a Rosary each day asking the Mother of the Lord for purity. The beauty of Christianity is that we exist amongst the communion of saints and we can, and should, ask all those in heaven to intercede for us.
  6. Deal with the device that is leading you to sin. If you access pornography on your smart phone then contact your provider to have data disconnected from your phone (or alternatively move to a simple phone). If the home computer is the problem then get it out of the house until you are ready. These actions can seem extreme but pornography is extreme and it must be dealt with in a radical way.
  7. Say goodbye to friends, contacts or situations that are causing you to fall into sin. Each person must examine their own life to see those things that are stumbling blocks to success and deal with them. These are personal decisions but how much do we put on the price of true freedom?
  8. Spend regular quality time with a group of friends of the same sex who share your faith and are active in the faith. If you don’t have any faith based friends then start engaging with your local parish to meet some. This step is not necessarily about gathering to discuss faith or personal struggles but establishing relationships with good men or women who are also on the journey.
  9. Get busy. The old phrase that ‘idle hands make the devil’s work’ is true. If we spend excessive time lazing around or playing computer games we are leaving an open door for temptation. The positive choices are endless; sport, charity work, hobbies, visiting the needy etc. When our head hits the pillow at night we should be really tired, if not there’s a problem.
  10. Don’t allow yourself to believe that your personal struggles put you in a category apart from everyone else on the planet, and in addition, do not make the struggle be beat pornography bigger than it needs to be. In other words, don’t give the devil too much credit. We all struggle in various ways but as Pope John Paul II once said,We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”

My Facebook Holiday

facebookOver the Christmas break I decided to take my real first Facebook holiday since joining the social network site back in 2007. I was sensing the need for an electronic rest and so completely switched off Facebook for one month. I am back on Facebook now but the short absence was invaluable and my approach to it is far more casual than it was before the hiatus.

When one first joins Facebook, their ‘friends’ consist of family and actual friends, and from there, depending on how a person chooses to use the site, they move out in concentric circles ‘friending’ more distant contacts, old school mates, former work colleagues, current and past associates and basically anyone else they cross paths with. British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that humans can really only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships; yet the average number of ‘friends’ a person has on Facebook is 388. Plenty of people, myself included, have more than that, which certainly doesn’t mean we are any more likeable or friendly than any other person; it probably just means we use the social media site as more of a networking tool. While I have personally found that the more connections maintained on Facebook the more valuable it becomes, it has also meant that my time tended to become more consumed by the lives of every single person I had ever known.

However, if Facebook is somewhat of a distraction on a desktop computer, that certainly increases when accessed via a smartphone. At any moment, waiting for a train, watching TV or walking down the street, I can read people’s comments, see recently uploaded photos and share my own articles and observations. And whether one likes to admit it or not, the instant gratification of being connected to other people and seeing their likes, comments and thoughts is highly addictive. As human beings we are naturally social animals; we desire to know more about others and for others to know more about us. Facebook feeds that desire. There is literally no end to the amount of time one can spend on Facebook. You can scroll and scroll and scroll but there will always be another post and another photo about someone you know. A recent British survey indicated that 72% of adults were spending their last waking moments in bed updating or checking their friends’ statuses which was often reducing their actual sleep time below what was needed in a healthy individual. And each morning I know my news feed will be brimming over with exactly the information I am interested in based on the various pages I have connected with, so the most appropriate thing to do every morning is of course to check Facebook. If I want news, it’s there, if I want a morning prayer, it’s there, if I want a traffic update, it’s there. Why read traditional news media when I can tap into my chosen mix of information intertwined with the ‘news’ of the people I know? Facebook is a one-stop-shop.

I have a number of friends who each year ‘give up’ Facebook as part of their Lenten penances, but I have never opted to do that because I saw staying on Facebook as a positive way to communicate, stay connected and build relationships. Of course I am aware that a phone call or face-to-face meeting is far more enriching than a pixelated connection. However there is no way that I could reach out in person to the number of people that I could via Facebook, short of quitting my job and becoming a full time socialite. Staying in touch via social media is certainly not the best or only way to communicate, but if over one billion people are on Facebook it seems to me certainly a place to be present.

You might be thinking that after my Facebook holiday I am declaring an end to my Facebook membership altogether but that is not the case. It is true that without Facebook I had more time to think quietly or talk with those around me. I really enjoyed the complete break from knowing who was doing what. Surprisingly I did not really feel the temptation to put up posts about the high price of tomatoes or share that cute video of my daughter spinning in circles but I certainly felt like I was somewhat out of the loop. Until I turned off Facebook, I did not completely realise how much perspective I was gaining from the various views and opinions of the posts that came across my news feed. I also missed out on the daily life stories of my family and close friends, which without Facebook I would not have been able to ‘participate’ in otherwise. I will look forward to the next opportunity to holiday from Facebook, but in the meantime I will do my best to use it well and with a greater degree of reserve.

 

Bernard Toutounji writes at www.foolishwisdom.com

Love, Not Hate

SiblingsIt seems that everywhere I look there are people that are going out of their way to annoy me! People who insist on driving at 45mph even though the limit is 65mph. People who have personal phone conversations on the train. People who chew with their mouths open. The list could take up this entire column!

There are situations however that go beyond ‘annoying’, situations that can affect us in serious ways. I was recently speaking to some friends who run a franchise business and the franchise director is really making life very difficult for them, to an extent that it is affecting their ability to run their business. The director tells lies, is obnoxious and rude. More than just affecting business though, when we encounter people like this it can adversely affect our happiness. We begin to boil on the inside, it consumes us at work and at home, we begin to hate the person and are led into personal sadness and depression.

These sorts of situations will play out for all of us in different ways through our lives but how can we respond? It seems to me that there really are only two answers, we can burn with hate for the person, or, we can burn with love for the person. Love?! What?!

The person who is causing us harm and grief in whatever way, is most often acting out of their own pain. They might be having family problems; perhaps they are insecure or lonely. Mother Teresa often spoke of loneliness as the greatest poverty especially in the modern Western world, and even a person who appears to have it all (family, career, assets, etc.) can be deeply lonely. Whatever it is there is there is probably a pain in their heart.

Our encounter then with the person who is causing us so much grief should before anything else be seen as an opportunity to show love. One of my all time favourite movie scenes is in the film “Karol” which tells the story of the life of Karol Wojtyla prior to him being elected as Pope John Paul II. Karol lived as a Bishop in Poland, which suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Once they had moved out, the communists moved in. Both movements were ones of hate. Seeing the Church as their largest threat, the communist leaders planted spies all around Bishop Wojtyla. One particular spy was sent as a student into Wojtyla’s university lectures. The spy also bugged the confessional to find anything he could which would accuse Wojtyla of encouraging a violent up rise against the regime. Day in and day out this spy listened to the pain in the hearts of those who came to confession and he heard the love of Christ that was offered to them by Wojtyla. In a very moving scene, the man, who could no longer live with himself, approaches Wojtyla to confess to being a spy, “Even though I hated you, your words slipped inside of me like water through a crack. You speak of love. Such a sick word.” And with that he broke down in the forgiving arms of the future Pope.

The point is that we all know the typical response to those who cause us pain. It is to cause them pain back. But there is another way, and amazingly there is no weapon against it. Love will break down any barrier because every hardened heart, every cruel boss, every offensive individual we meet desires love.

But it is not enough just to smile at the person when we see them and avoid them like the plague the rest of the time. We need to love them, actively. In the auto biography of St Therese of Liseux she tells the story of a particular nun who irritated her to no end and made her life miserable. Therese reaches a point where she writes “I reminded myself that sentiments of charity were not enough; they must find expression, and I set myself to treat her as if I loved her best of all.” Therese loved this fellow nun not just in words but with actions. She looked past what displeased her to see the person with all their pain, and their hurt but also their gifts and talents.

Whoever is causing you trouble is not going to be any worse than the communist spy but even if they are, the key is to love them, love them actively, love them like you would love the most important person in your life. You will turn your difficult satiation around but most important you will genuinely help someone and become a better person yourself.

Copyright Bernard Toutounji 2015

Image Creative Commons http://pixabay.com/en/brothers-family-siblings-boys-love-457237/