Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Recalling Memories through Pictures (using multimedia tools)

The processes of contact, feelings, perception and memory are closely interlinked. They are mediated through our senses and for most people the sense that usually predominates is sight. So in trying to put together the early life of my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford, it's been helpful to carry out interviews based on sets of photographs. I haven't done much planning really, but rather have made things up as I've gone along, working intuitively; it's only now I can see more of the methodology that I've actually followed! I'll report here on that methodology and also on some of the technical tools that I've used to assist me.

My mother left hundreds of photos, which I've tried to arrange in sets according to distinct periods: early childhood, University days, her first years of teaching and so on. I created an index for each set and have pencilled in an incrementing number on the back of each photo, so that they are uniquely identified and there's some order to them, though (as I later would frequently find out) it's not chronological! I then scanned in the photos at a fairly high resolution (on an HP Scanjet 5370C, quite old now) and saved the files using the index as part of the file name. Having done this for a fair proportion of the collection, I've put copies in many places - on laptop hard drives, an external backup disk and memory sticks.

However, merely creating an archive without any descriptions is not much use! For some while I had intended to ask relatives and friends of my mother to enlighten me as to the context and details concerning the photos. I was finally able to set off for my mini fieldwork earlier this month (December), with a copy of the photos on my netbook, an Eee PC. When I met the 'interviewees' in Thailand I recorded the conversations using a digital voice recorder, saving copies of the recordings as files on the netbook.

It was the first time I had properly used such a recording device and my experience of conducting interviews was minimal (though I once did an interview with a Big Issue seller as part of a one day digital video course). So earlier this year I explored the world of digital audio recorders (a process that's familiar for me as I've purchased quite a lot of electronic devices :-) I settled on an Olympus WS-110, which is a compact device, somewhat smaller and lighter than e.g. a Nokia 8210 mobile phone. I chose it based on reviews of its audio quality - good microphone and high quality sampling (see e.g. reviews on Amazon); file format wasn't a concern for me. These devices are evolving rapidly and already Olympus lists this as an archived product, which means you should be able to find it new at a very good price on ebay (which is where I purchased it). Operating the device was very simple.

Then the netbook would serve as a digital lightbox and a basic means of navigation - for a given photo set all the photos would be the same folder and I'd run a slideshow using the wonderful Irfanview! The major handicap with the netbook is the relatively small screen - in many cases I needed to zoom in (my audio recording has a lot of tapping sounds!) When I was in conversation, I'd start with a preamble about what I was intending to do and asked for permission (it's worth confirming this afterwards as well). Although sometimes you know that everyone is happy, it's a good habit to get into in case I go on to do academic fieldwork, which is something I am deliberating. My main role felt like being a catalyst, with some general encouragement and a few questions sprinkled here and there, to elicit a few more details. There's no doubt a large swathe of literature on conducting such interviews, but I didn't read any.

On my return to the UK it was time to transcribe what had been said. To facilitate this, I wanted to associate the audio with the respective pictures (a tradeoff of using a separate recording device rather than doing the recording directly on the netbook). The intended result would be a video consisting of the photos that I had shown with each photo accompanied by the respective audio commentary, i.e. the comments from friends and relatives.

The solution I adopted was to use a video editing tool, Windows Movie Maker (WMM for short), which comes part of the Windows operating system. I guess it is similar in functionality, if not in elegance, with Apple's iMovie. My familiarity with WMM is very limited, so it's probably best if I summarise. The basic idea is to create one WMM file for each interview (WMM only provides a single audio track) so that in any given interview when playing back you know what was said about a particular picture. Here's a screenshot:

Windows Movie Maker screenshot showing a composition of photos synchronised with an audio track

There are basically three areas: top left is the collection of files that I used to create the composition - this is where you import the photos and the audio and in this case I could import audio straightaway without conversion as it was in WMA format. Top right is the playback for the composition as a whole. However, the work is carried out below in the storyboard/timeline, which consists of parallel tracks. All I used was the Video and Audio tracks, dragging and dropping photos from the collection area, moving them about until there was approximate synchronisation.

However, in writing a biography I need words as well as pictures! The next step in the process is thus transcription. The method I'm using here is to create a large table with the first column containing the photos, one photo per row. Each of the other columns are to record the transcription from a particular interview. With reference to the WMM files I'm transcribing what was said about a particular photo in the corresponding cell of the table. Again I'm not being particularly sophisticated about the implementation - it's one mammoth table in a MS Word document. As long as it works, it is okay. For a formal research project I expect this would be better implemented in a database.

Handwriting bonus!

There have been some nice extras in undertaking this exercise. My mother has penned in Thai many documents, including a diary over several years. It's one thing to learn how to read the printed word, but a further step to decipher Thai handwriting! With these compositions I have some samples here that have been read out (and with the aid of a dictionary I can slowly spell them out myself). To be systematic, for each letter I can build up a set of samples that I can use later on.

For a few hours of recording, there are many more in organising and interpreting, but I find it fun to do and along the way I learn a little more about Thai history generally. For anyone contemplating learning more about their own family history, I'd recommend this as a stimulating and informative exercise.


I mustn't forget to thank everyone who has kindly provided information in the December interviews, including: Pah Vasana, Khun Jamras, Pah Umpai, P' Laem, P' Darunee & her mother, Khun Chaiwat, P' Yui, P' Ead, Na Tewee, Na Tun, and Pah Jah. If I could contact all those my mother knew well, this list would be very long ...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Kanchanaburi Travelogue: A day trip by train

Although I was visiting Thailand mainly to conduct family research, my exceedingly kind hosts, Khun Jamras and Pah Vasana, organised a couple of day trips and acted as excellent tour guides.

One of these outings was a day-long train tour into Kanchanaburi province, most famous abroad for its sad place in history as the scene in World War II of the "Death Railway" connecting Thailand with Burma. At that time Thailand was occupied by large numbers of Japanese soldiers - certainly hundreds of thousands - with many local conscripts and prisoners of war losing their lives in the railway's construction. It's most popularly commemorated in the film "The Bridge over the River Kwai" (it's actually Mae Nam K[h]wae, and its pronunciation rhymes with "air" instead of "eye") and in the town of Kanchanaburi two rivers Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi merge - the railway runs along side the latter.

As far as I can recall, I've only ever been there once, when I was just 4 years old. It seemed about time that I visited again - and by train, of course! The day's excursion, from Bangkok Hualampong right to the present end of the line, Nam Tok (for the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall), which according to the State Railway network map is a distance of about 120 miles from Bangkok, but I understand that during the war the line extended much further. There's a weekend special, costing a mere 100Baht, as listed in the State Railway of Thailand (look for Sai Yok Waterfal (waterfall is 'nam dok' in Thai). I think you can purchase tickets at most rail stations, but for some journeys, as with this one, you need to book quite well in advance - at least a week. This and other options for getting to Kanchanaburi are well covered in a detailed travel guide by Mark Smith.

We went for the 100 baht option ("3rd class") and with the wind blowing through the window and fans inside the carriage, there's no need for air conditioning. There are just two caveats: don't stick your head out even an inch when the train is moving, because there's a lot of bushes right next to the line; and when the sun shines, keep the window down, but pull down the metal grill(?) to keep the air flowing. Here's a view of our carriage (taken at Nakhon Pathom):

Saturday tour train

At this price, it's a bargain just to get there and back, but there's much more in the way of service. As usual, plenty of hawkers selling drinks (hot coffee early on and cold drinks later), and food to order - order in the morning, served in the afternoon; as well as various snacks. The average UK rail car cannot compete! But the real bonus was the rail conductor who strolled up and down the carriages with his megaphone announcing the sights left and right as we bowled along the line. With a ready smile he cracked lots of jokes, even for mundane situations, e.g. "No, don't get off here - only rabbits get off here!" He had a cartoon-like ubiquity, particularly at the end of the line: as people disembarked, he stuck his head out of a carriage and carried on making announcements through his megaphone! (You'll hear his voice in some of the video clips).

Hualompong is a terminus; trains emerge heading in a Northerly direction and those for the West go through two or three stations in the suburbs. We found it more convenient to get on at Bang Sue, remembering that there are two stations - one for trains destined for the South, the other for all other destinations! At least the train from Chiengmai was not going to stop here...

At shortly before 7am on Saturday 19th December we were on our way and raced along to Nakorn Pathom, about 40 miles down the line. It was a very brief stop, barely time to "Wai Phra Pathom Chedi" (pay homage to the Phra Pathom pagoda), though I have visited several times in the past, and have written a little illustrated guide to the chedi (from a visit in 1988).

Moving on from Nakorn Pathom we arrived at the most significant destination along the journey, the town of Kanchanaburi, where the train stopped to allow passengers to make their way to the now very familiar bridge:

Khwae Bridge

This is not the original construction - this and a wooden one were subject to numerous bombing raids. About halfway along there's a boilerplate that has a date of 2491 B.E. (Buddhist Era), which in Thai convention would be the equivalent of 1948C.E.

Boilerplate for Bridge over the Khwae Yai River

With so many tourists, there's a danger of becoming insensitive to the wartime tragedy that took place. I think it depends a lot on whom you travel with and whether you can speak with a local person who has some connection. My father has been there in recent years and came back with a very touching account of reconciliation told him by a Thai lady who had set up a shrine for the victims. A now frail and elderly Japanese man, who as an interpreter/interrogator had been one of the officers meting out punishment, had been having nightmares ever since and was trying very hard to seek forgiveness and healing, visiting the site every year. There came a pivotal moment when he met one of those whom he tortured, a Scottish soldier. His nightmares suddenly vanished. My father is not sure of the names, but we think they could be Takashi Nagase and Ernest Gordon respectively.

The nature of our whistle-stop tour was such that this kind of encounter was not likely, but on our way back we did at least pay a brief visit to the war cemetary:

War Cemetary at Kanchanaburi

War Memorial Plaque at Kanchanaburi

We then boarded the train again to continue our journey, the train first inching up to just short of the bridge before proceeding onwards:

From then on, the terrain became more hilly, with the train often hugging the hills following the snaking river. (The following composition includes film taken in each direction).

The train finally pulled into its destination at around midday. It's now very popular and from our lunch spot we could take in views of mountains on one side and the waterfall and streams on the other. We could also see an apparently new row of traders besides the road, near which dozens of motorcyclists had gathered and then made their urban roar on their various machines, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. That's typical of Thailand today.

Being not so long after the end of the rainy season, the waters were flowing quite freely, with plenty of people splashing about the in 'little waterfall,' but I just took a photo of the top of the waterfall, where no-one could climb up!

Waterfall at Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi

We had a stop of over 2 hours, but I was slow to note the other attractions nearby:

Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi: sites

If I were to go again I'd aim to reach the Wang Badan cave - given that it's located a mile or so away and the climate is quite warm, I think I'd need to allow at least an hour to get there and back). Fortunately, there was another cave quite nearby, just beyond a ranger's station: taking the path up the slope, as shown in the photo, revealing the intertwining forest vegetation:

Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi

Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi (from above the waterfall)

Just a few steps up to the entrance to the cave:

Cave at Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi

I imagine that for many centuries (before the arrival of trains) it was used by dhutanga bhikkhus, practising assiduously. It is now a shrine and still feels peaceful with a nice atmosphere, with plenty of sunlight coming through.

At 2pm the train returned to pick us up and it was time to make the journey home.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parliament Session notes: Silicon Valley and the Partner City Process

[Saturday Programme reference]

Interfaith activity has been considerable in the UK for quite some while, so could it host a future Parliament? I hope so, but what would it take? At the very least more visibility to the Parliament's Council; this session ('Developing an interreligious community: how Silicon Valley used the Partner City Process') presented an opportunity to learn how in particular to foster constructive engagement in metropolitan areas. If the volume of notes is anything to go by, I certainly found this session edifying. I'll try to indicate salient points.

Imagine you feel inspired with the Parliament concept and the mission of its Council, which is inter alia to foster engagement with world and guiding institutions; to achieve a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, through learning, cooperation, dialogue, engaged action on issues of mutual concern across … cultural and natural boundaries with a particularly focus on Metropolitan areas.

So how do you sell this to the city (or metropolitan area) in question? The presenters from Silicon Valley phrased it like this: what partner city process engagement can make possible.

The general theme (which seems worth repeating constantly) is that of cooperation: to work with other guiding institutions, i.e. especially, as it turned out, secular civic institutions. The Council was evidently impressed with these initiatives as they highlight their approach as exemplary, giving impetus to further initiatives. Here in Melbourne, the Parliament launched a broad-based initiative to stay connected to engage in initiatives when we return home, inviting direct participation with the Council's work – both individuals and communities – particularly through a new social networking site, PeaceNext (more about this, I hope, later).

There are some prerequisites before the Parliament will look favourably upon a city's proposition. First, dialogue must already be in place. The Partner Cities attribution is to a large extent recognizing what should already be vibrant inter-religious movements who have put together structures to work with guiding institutions..

In this respect, the Parliament will look at the diversity of organisations and the way they are functioning within this dialogue. Wider awareness appears essential (and, I think, the UK is very aware of this factor), as captured by the term glocalisation, a term that I first heard in the late 90's (with the refrain, “think global, act local!), but I suspect it's been around for a lot longer than that; indeed, one of the first online initiatives that showed promise for developing countries was (on , which connected church communities around the world, addressing c ommon issues. But I digress. Here Roman Robertson stressed that globalisation is not monolithic and does not necessarily lead to homogenisation since it is realized in local settings.

One fact that sprung out at meet was [in San Jose, I think] that there's no majority ethnic group, with recent statistics showing 40% White, 30% Asian, 30% Hispanic. At present there is no UK city in this position (all have white majorities), but there are two or three, including Leicester, that on current trends will be in this position within 10 or 20 years. Civic leaders from these UK cities may do well to learn some lessons (if they're not doing so already), but given the current economic climate they probably should do this mainly via online conference facilities etc.

For religious communities, there's evident a need to tell their story as a means to help establish their identity in a foreign land; local paper profiles local stories and many congregations have histories, all helping to weave the rich tapestry of the area. Local government analyses often support these and I expect there's a lot tucked away in libraries and municipal offices. But how to capture this diversity in the public square; how to create a unified identity made up of local voices? Some illustrations were provided through visual statements in the form of art and sculpture. More academic initiatives included a “Carry the vision” conference promoting the principle of non-violent actions “one person at a time..”

Strategically, it seems sensible to observe and understand how the Parliament operates. Members of Silicon Valley attended the Barcelona Parliament and on returned organised an event modelled on the Parliament with representatives from different traditions, reducing large number into small groups, all leading back to one common purpose. Goals were clearly articulated in terms of local benefits, sense of community, increased social cohesion bringing business, civic authorities and others together. The role of the organising committee was to act as facilitators.

So what does the process make possible what wasn't before...? (The presenters referred to guidelines from Parliament; on how to do case study; the parameters for presentation, stressing the need for a representative group.) There was a very positive attitude to newcomers: rather than taking away a piece of the pie, each group brings new inspiration, resources, c.reativity etc – so the pie expands (this image was also conveyed at the Coalition meeting I attended before the Parliament).

It appears to galvanise efforts to train ourselves, on leadership, organisation and facilitation; to develop networks, and work within the civil structures to whom we show worthiness to be involved for the common good. Whilst it may already exist within many and between some interfaith groups (and this I know is the case in many UK cities) the communication outside these networks is often poor and lacking coordination. These have to be made more effective to be treated seriously.

Partnership is seen as the hook. Some examples were given, including “The Beautiful Day” - practical work to fix people's homes … Such initiatives raise visibility and a point is reached where faith groups understand the importance of interfaith. [If this can be properly realized, I sense the initiatives will become self-sustaining]. Gitish Shah recounted how this was put into effect with a Jain centre which came to realize the importance of wider participation, hosting interfaith forums at temple. (In the UK, it's much more unusual for SE Asian communities to get involved in this way, though some such gatherings do take place – e.g. a gather at a Thai temple in Kings Bromley. Furthermore, faith communities need to cooperate since if it's just one community working unilaterally, there may be a questionmark [whether it's a request for particular help or whatever] whereas coming together gives combined strength, amplified voice and eliminates competition.

Moreover, for the civic leaders, talking to a broader base gives leverage and enhances profile, particularly with global links to other metropolitan areas, who are doing similar work [thereby creating a para-network].

In conclusion, there was a threefold recommendation:

  • catch the vision
  • commit to enter the process - take back to community,region and share
  • reach out to Council of Parliament

In the UK, interfaith has featured very prominently in civil society during the past decade, with excellent coordination through the Interfaith Network for the UK, but when I asked one member of the Council perceived there to be actually too many interfaith groups! So the coordination needs to really well demonstrated.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Researching a Thai Biography

There's some interleaving in my blog posts at the moment: as well as sorting out notes from the Parliament, I'm currently gathering some information here in Thailand for a personal project: a biography of my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford (the following photo of her is one of my favourites):

In my 10 day stopover on my way back from Melbourne to the UK, I've been showing old photographs like the one above to relatives and friends, seeking to learn more about her early life - her childhood, her university studies (and many outings) at Chulalongkorn and afterwards her time at the Thonburi Technical Institute, Bangmod (now King Mongkut University of Technology, Thonburi). I've been using a voice recorder and subsequently transferring the audio to my Eee PC: everything that has appeared online in the past couple of weeks or so has emanated from or been processed on this netbook, truly a travelling companion! (And I've been fortunate enough to have good Wifi access with reasonable broadband connections.

Today, one of my kalyanamittas, Khun Jo, took me to the National Library in Bangkok. My grandparents' home was formerly in Rajadamnoen, in the city centre, which became a target for British and American bombers in the Second World War. Many families moved across the Chao Phraya to Thonburi, though my grandparents may have moved a few years before as they were the first to arrive at what was then an orchard without any dwellings. I was looking for some background information and photographs from that time and in the short time we had we were able to find a book that specifically mentioned this movement from one side of the river to the other.

I feel there's a long way to go, not least to understand the geography - I recall two of my mother's friends taking her to a certain restaurant around a big roundabout; only today did I learn that this was in Rajadamnoen. Evidently there's much more for me to explore!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A brief retrospective on the 2009 Parliament of the World Religions

I was hoping to be able to blog during the Parliament itself, but found there was too much going on to settle down to do much in the way of reflection and typing, so I'm submitting some retrospective posts. This first one is just to give an overall impression.

I attended the Cape Town Parliament in 1999 and it left an indelible impression – both the event itself and the spaces all around with many kinds of encounter. With thousands of participants, it's a major undertaking for the organisers (the Council) – on this occasion the printed A4 programme provides descriptions of many hundreds of presentations, workshops and performances and is 390 pages long!

It's perhaps an even greater undertaking for the hosts: Melbourne had the honour for 2009 and it demonstrated a major commitment – a very professional venue (Melbourne Conference and Exhibition Centre); backing from civic authorities; a harmonious multi-cultural society with sensitivity to historical contexts; and excellent hospitality exemplified (I think) in the homestay programme.

Parliament Foyer

However, there wasn't much time for self-congratulation. Whereas 1999 had been an occasion for grand visions at the turn of a millennium, ten years later there was no escaping practical calls to action and entering the Exhibition Centre one would encounter every day an ecological message:

Fossil Fools

Here, though, many 'environments' were being tended, especially the inner environment, the heart. It's just the kind of issue – it was felt – where religions can offer more complete perspectives, which are rooted in whole mind or the heart-mind (a Buddhist term is citta). I also encountered quite a lot of synchronicity. Within minutes of stepping into the Convention Centre for the first time on the evening of the 3rd, I had seen two of the participants of the Coalition meeting, a group of from the Australia branch of Wat Phra Dhammkaya, who were running a couple of meditation sessions, and interfaith friends from Oxford, including Mary Braybrooke, who ran inter alia a session on attitudes to the elderly and dying (hope to write about it in another post). Here they are at their respective Parliament booths:

Mary Braybrooke in conversation at the Brahma Kumaris / WCF / IIC booth

Parliament booth for the Dhammakaya International Society of Australia

Participation takes many forms. the programmed sessions were opportunities to listen, hear; the other periods (sessions usually had 30 minute intervals) were opportunities for dialogue in small groups; I felt something akin to a wafting sensation as I wandered into art spaces, conversations etc. Conversations could be free-floating in undefined spaces, over lunch, in public gatherings off site, or a bit more structured, as at an official Parliament booth or open sessions. Whilst this 'collective effervescence' was quite energising, we were acutely aware that the real challenges remain in terms of application. In the closing plenary, His Holiness the Dalai Lama referred to Swami Vivekenanda in communicating the spirit beyond this event and over several days the Council advertised quite heavily a new social networking site, PeaceNext to facilitate this cooperation. It's a nice gesture, though is it sustainable given the plethora of more established sites ...?

I hope to share from the very small proportion of sessions I attended, but it may take me a while. So please wander over to the official Parliament site, where there's a lot of coverage, including audio-visual recordings, especially from the plenaries, though sessions were not generally recorded (this is partly reflecting the sensitivity of some of the topics under discussion).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sky Train has arrived in Wongwien Yai!

Today I had the joy of travelling on Bangkok's skytrain all the way from Mo Chit to Wongwien Yai, very near to where my cousins live. Here's a couple of photos taken nearby the station:

Wongwienyai BTS

Wongwienyai BTS

It's great news as previously to get across the river one had to choose between walking/ferry/motorbike/tuk-tuk, each of which had some inconvenience or extra cost. For several years the basic concrete structure had been in place, but there were doubts about whether this extension would be complete. Now it's operating, it's a real boon for residents in Thonburi and the maximum fare is still only 40 bahts. :-)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Working for inter-religious cooperation: observations from a coalition meeting,

[update appended 4 Jan 2010]

On Tuesday 1st December I joined the second meeting of a coalition working on an initiative UN Decade of Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace held at the Holy Cross Retreat Centre in Templestowe, Melbourne.

Holy Cross retreat centre, Templestowe

I was there as a representative of the International Interfaith Centre. The IIC is not yet a member of the network, so I was invited along just as an observer.

The rationale for the decade (in simplistic terms) is the growing acceptance that religion has a significant impact on the major global issues today, particularly relating to the eradication of poverty and the environment. Whilst Europe may assert a secular view of life, the majority of the rest of the world gives a far higher priority to religion. The upshot of this is that the United Nations has hitherto tended to incorporate aspects of religion only under socio-economic umbrellas, regarding it, for instances, as a subset of culture, and as a result it seems that religious organisations generally have been kept at the periphery of its activities.

Yet many of these organisations are already very active in contributing to UN goals, so it seems sensible to support and add value what is already being done with the official approval of the UN, which can provide structures to help link the various organisations under its wide umbrella and guide the foci.

This is, as I understand it, the motivation for the coalition, and the meeting at the beginning of the month was to work through its goal, objectives, etc. so as to provide a convincing case of the need for such a decade. About 35-40 participants discussed the framework at length over a couple of days, with some absorbing sessions held in a delightful meeting room with large windows overlooking the grounds of the centre (the environment was very conducive).

Coalition meeting; Discussing strategies for the UN Decade

The process seems well considered; the steering groups comprises some very experienced members, several of whom have worked for many years at the UN (and shared some glimpses into its internal workings, particular the characteristics of various committees). The steering group is very conscious of the need for broad representation and I felt it serves the interests of its member coalition very well - certainly everyone at the meeting expressed much appreciation for the work being put in, which (like most interfaith-related initiatives) has involved considerable personal commitment, much of it offered on a voluntary basis, with resources largely offered as gifts in kind.

Even as an observer, such gatherings prompt anyone who attends to reflect on what their organisation has to contribute. The more I thought about it, the more I felt the IIC was eminently suited to this kind of initiative. It has a history of cooperation, operating from the local, where for instance it has produced a Directory of Oxford Faith groups (I recall giving my personal copy to a very enthusiastic member of Oxford City Council), through interfaith education, including online studies (formerly with lectures) in coordination with Oxford University academics, through to the co-ordination of the International Interfaith Organisations network

Plenty of opportunity for input across a broad set of issues, though there were evidently some differences of opinion which I think will need addressing further, though they mainly concern what I'd regard as the finer detail. A particular issue is how to treat 'faith' vis-a-vis 'religion,' which is an old cookie! There is a term frequently used in the literature of 'Faith-based organisations,' but its definition is apparently of some concern and some would insist that the definitions come from the religious communities themselves, not sociologists. How important is to to resolve the linguistic semantics? Some would wish to be meticulous about the terms in the title, whilst others are less so and are content to assume that the descriptions will make clear the full scope and import. At some stage the steering committee will probably need to settle on some policy to be applied consistently.

I'd also like to see more visible input from academic institutions. Academic voices can be quite vocal and influential in high level political deliberations, so this experience should be tapped into.

At the end of the day, it is the member states who wlll have to make the decision on whether or not to proceed. The general strategy was expressed of putting it to these states how such a decade would help them to achieve their goals; as such religious communities return to a core responsibility of being of service. And seeing the very positive engagement among the various representatives at this meeting, was to me a good sign that such service would indeed be rendered.

Group photo from Second Coalition meeting

Interfaith cooperation is already making important contributions; a UN Decade would amplify such contributions and so I hope it happens.

Update: UN Resolution

With some help from Stein Villumstad, I've since managed to navigate my way through the documentation of UN Resolutions for the 64th Session. The decade is mentioned in Press release GA/10900 concerning Resolution no. A/RES/64/81 discussing Draft A/64/L.15/Rev.1 + Add.1 (7 December 2009), where it says:

"Also adopted today were resolutions on the 2001-2010: ... the International Decade on a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World, 2001-2010; and a related text on the promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace. ... By a draft text on the Promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace (A/64/L.15/Rev.1), ... the Secretary-General would ... at its sixty-sixth session, to solicit States views on the possibility of proclaiming a United Nations decade for interreligious and intercultural dialogue and cooperation for peace."

No doubt updates will be made available on the initiative's Web site.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Orientation for a student pre Parliament of World Religions, Melbourne

What has religious studies got to do with interfaith? If that question prompts blank looks or a state of denial, then for scholars of religion, I would recommend doing what I finally got round to doing on a plane - read Peggy Morgan's paper, 'The Study of Religions and Interfaith Encounter.' (in NUMEN, Vol. 42 (1995)). It's very timely, especially for myself with the prospect of the Parliament of the World Religions approaching very fast.

Morgan's paper (even though I'm blogging, I feel academic matters assert some formalities) was authored in 1993, the year that the International Interfaith Centre was co-founded by three organisations. In her second footnote, Morgan writes: “The International Interfaith Centre is intended to provide Westminster College with a research resource and has been set up jointly with the World Congress of Faiths and the International Association of Religious Freedom.” Her paper makes a number of references to the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, from which the present series, the Parliament of World Religions, is derived. It's very absorbing, the kind of paper that distils evidently many years of study and engagement with topic, offering various reflections that give shape to how the academic deliberations of and encounter with inter-faith can point to ways to that sharpen that encounter, make it become more (self-)aware of possible effects and contributions. It also gives some pointers as to what academics may usefully investigate, with some underlying directions. The suggestion is amply made that the tools offered by various disciplines – of anthropology, sociology and phenomenology – offer considerable potential to enhance interfaith very broadly.

My passage to this year's Parliament in Melbourne has been kindly sponsored by the IIC and as part of the deal I've been asked to write an article on interfaith developments, in quite broad terms. Given Morgan's article and my recent studies in religion, it seems appropriate to observe and try to survey and evaluate – in a very partial way – what's going on now and compare the situation with that of 15 years ago.

From a personal perspective, I tend to come in and out of these large gatherings (8,000 expected on this occasion), as my usual work is in academic IT. So I imagine that if you're an interfaith veteran, I may be repeating things in ways that have been far better expressed before. However, Morgan also raises questions about how one's personal background affects the nature of the study. So it may be interesting to see (for others to commnt on) how having had two parents practising devoutly their religions and having imbued me with both – something rare even in mixed marriages – may impact on my more academic writings.

From the other side, my personal practice means I can seek to validate what goes on among (amid the many lofty words of) the academics, according to my experience. From my time in Oxford's local interfaith scene (which usually means informal gatherings where there's food!) there's been more than a passing mention of indifference to Oxford University's academics, who are perceived as in their own self-created ivory tower. However, Morgan provides an excellent demonstration of thoughtful concern, dealing on the human level, yet subjecting her reflections to the particular rigours of academic analysis - though it's just one kind of rigorous analysis, I'd add. As a result, she comes up with very interesting and pertinent questions – asking the right questions and collecting quite a few in this paper. It's particularly some of these questions that I should try to keep in mind as I explore the Parliament (and other related gatherings).

Here are a few of the questions Morgan raises:

Academics in attendance of such meetings raises the question of identity and its relationship to the subject of study: “Are they there as members of a faith community, which many are, but which is not a requirement for research in the study of religions?” [This latter point about requirement can be challenged with regard to the quality of study – there's a whole raft of insider/outsider discussions with which I know Morgan is very familiar]. I like to consider: Who speaks for whom? When listening for whom are you listening?

Morgan asks further: “If they are there as academics first and foremost what relevance do such gatherings have to their academic work? Does participation in any way tinge the academic agenda with a kind of para-theology?” And Morgan is ready with some illustrations of this. Another question: “Does the agenda of interfaith work potentially cast a shadow over the shape of the study of religions in the same way that concerns of an individual religion might?” (We can consider, for example, how does a Divinity department deals with the study on World Religions). Further, “Is interfaith a kind of new religious movement?”

Not sure how far I'm going to get into this, but at least it could be useful to lay down some markers.

[sent from Federation Sq., Melbourne]

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Three Essays in Christianity: Miracles, Meditation and Marriage

Having finished the Master's, I'm now pleased to share some of my writings. Here I make available with very brief descriptions copies of the essays I submitted.

Comments are welcome - you can post them on this blog.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Viva voce: a 20 minute examination of an Oxford tradition

Oxford's examination system, like most aspects of the University, have a long history. This particular history is shaped by the viva voce (oral) examination, which I've been told used to be the main form of assessment. It still features quite prominently and the M.St. in the Study of Religion is no exception - all students have to be examined this way right at the end of the course and as with written papers the formal academic dress of subfusc is compulsory.

Perhaps more interestingly in terms of its ritual symbolism is the tradition of wearing carnations, which is actually optional. For a series of exams carnations are traditionally colour-coded and in gradation: for the first exam, it's white, for the last exam red, and for all others pink. Now for the moment let's assume an anthropological perspective: white often signifies purity and cleanliness - in this context the initiate (think tabula rasa) is like a newborn about to receive an impression as it undergoes a transition. In such a state the initiate is very open, exposed and often undergoing a process in a group where any distinguishing status they might have had before is removed - everyone is in the same boat. So it also conveys isolation and separateness from the rest of the world. Having undertaken the first exam, the transitioning is underway (towards a qualified status). One story goes that in days past the first carnation would then be dipped in red ink to become pink; subsequently it was further immersed and the colour deepened until red right through, symbolising the completion of the experience (and the taking of the final exam). Red is a symbol of life, vitality, coming to fruition.

What I've just written reflects the kind of approach that we studied in the M.St. and I'm sure that a great deal could be written in this vein - if you're keen, then you can explore the research of the likes of Victor Turner - see his chapter 'Betwixt and between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage' from The Forest of Symbols). My take is largely poetic license!

Anyway, all six of us from the M.St. course (Frances, Jeff, Tom, Tristan, Zahra and myself) duly turned up for the viva on Friday 2 October at Examination Schools and took our turns to field questions for just 20 minutes in front of a panel consisting of chair of examiners, a number of internal examiners, the external examiner and members of the examiners board. In our case, no fewer than six in all (so six examiners for six students!) These rooms are large and echoey and I could imagine familiar voices in animated discussion make the room reverberate! Perhaps that combative style of vigorous debate is the Oxford way, but I decided to take a softly softly approach.

One of the panel came to collect me and showed me to my chair, in front of a small desk bedecked with a bottle of water and glass. Before me were three clusters of desks and behind them the academics in their various gowns with the chair of the examiners directly opposite. If this formation is a centuries-old tradition then I can imagine in previous generations, when greater weight was placed on the viva, that sitting there might have felt like being marooned on a tiny island! I think that nowadays, at least for taught courses, a viva is usually an opportunity to improve one's grade, which removes a lot of pressure. I didn't feel nervous, perhaps because I've been doing regular meditation practice, and in fact the panellists created a generally supportive atmosphere. I've had a couple of other academic vivas and in comparison, this was probably the least intimidating of them.

However I really didn't know what my approach should have been and afterwards I couldn't tell how I fared! There's no guide to preparing for the vivas, just a few sentences that basically say that the questions are likely to concern the written papers and/or submissions (essays and dissertation), but the panel is at liberty to ask anything relating to the course. This might seem like they have carte blanche, but in practice the questions would be oriented, I expect, to drawing out more from the candidate that might have been communicated in the written work.

At least, that's how I might rationalise some of the questions that came my way, which were very general. One asked me something like: "What do you understand by mystical experience?" Now here is where I probably overdid the psychology as I knew my questioner's field was science and religion. So I immediately questioned the word "understand," which prompted a short response in which I was asked to "define 'mystical experience'" and I was subsequently asked to compare it with 'religious experience.' With St. Teresa of Avila in mind, the subject of one of my essays, I waffled on about depth [that was a suggestion given me], ineffability, problems of measurement (still thinking about the background of my questioner - but refrained from sharing thoughts from David Böhm's introduction to his Wholeness and the Implicate Order). Instead I threw in words like "numinous" and claiming people's differing horizons (earth, sky, outer space) making it difficult to compare etc. Towards the end I was asked for a definition of 'religion,' to which I claimed that no definition was adequate, citing one attributed to Durkheim "... beliefs and practices relating to sacred things", and indicating the limitation of 'things' when considering internal experience. I said it was better to look at characteristics and expressed appreciation for Ninian Smart's 7 Dimensions. When I offered to go through them, this particular thread was drawn immediately to a close!

Afterwards all the students gathered at Pizza Express and conversations ranged all over the place!


It may surprise people to know that when Oxford students were asked to express an opinion on whether the wearing of subfusc should remain compulsory, they voted 4 to 1 in favour of retaining it. (At the time I was working at OUCS and I set up the voting system (a simple indicative poll) in WebLearn at the request of OUSU. Perhaps subsequently having to wear it myself was the result of this karma. :-).

Monday, October 05, 2009

Social SVG?

A few years ago I was pondering whether SVG could allow more than text-oriented approaches to blogging.

I'm thinking about it again because:

  • more mobiles have touch screen devices encourage doodling
  • updated standard - SVG Tiny 1.2
  • better browser support for displaying and more recently editing SVG
  • Google Wave (and similar initatives) are presenting a more flexible messaging paradigm

SVG has been around a long time now, but in day-to-day online content-creation it remains rather hidden: whether sending an e-mail or contributing to social networking sites, it's generally text, photos and videos that are created and circulated, with other activities bolted on via apps.

And yet there's already software that makes it easy to draw, to doodle, and not consume lots of computing resources (disk space, processing power etc). Berners-Lee conceived a read/write Web, with his Amaya Web editor/browser having a toggle button between browse and edit. Now the latest version has a very nice SVG editor built-in. And gradually momentum has been building for mobile initiatives built on SVG, generally based on open standards, leading to solutions such as Ikivo.

It seems to me that the time is ripe for all kinds of SVG-based communications. With its graphical nature the replies could be more about editing the images you've been sent - so when you receive an SVG message, you can edit it and send it back. A simple example would be a game of Os and Xs, but it can apply to any scenario where people are sketching a design. It becomes even more attractive with multi-touch. For implementation purposes I guess you could have some form of version control both to make it more efficient and to support animations.

So basically this is aiming at a drawing equivalent/extension of SMS, blogs, twitter etc.

Google Wave is obviously developing messaging a great deal and no doubt can demonstrate its potential; already there are efforts to incorporate SVG as a gadget, such as Vidor Hokstad's Google Wave Gadget API Emulator. It reminds me of some promising CSCW research into shared authoring widgets/X Windows toolkits that I saw being carried out at Kingston University in the early to mid 90s by Maria Winnett, a former research colleague (can I say 'colleague'? We were actually we were a diverse group of PhD students sharing a research lab in the Sopwith Building). And it looks like there's been renewed interest that involves the mobile scenario.

However, SVG editing could be as ubiquitous as e-mail so should not be dependent on Google or any other single provider for a transport.

There must be a simpler more universal solution (perhaps there already is ...)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Avoiding 'Invisible Idiots' in the translation of Vatican documents

The dust is just settling as this course comes to a conclusion. I have some time now to cast my mind back on some particular episodes as a student on this M.St. course.

One of the challenges I faced was finding tantalising references in footnotes, especially those which promised to provide some special insights or even definitive analysis by which to anchor an argument. To what lengths should one go to follow such references...?

Such was the case when I worked on my essay, The Catholic Church and Inter-religious Marriages: Reflections on Pastoral Theology and Practice after Vatican II. I was focusing mainly on those marriages where the non-Catholic party was not a Christian, for which there is a rather unfriendly formal term in Latin, disparitas cultus, though it is rendered more softly in English translation as "disparity of worship." The analysis depends on canon law and Bishop John McAreavey gives a good overview of the this and what it can mean in the parishes where there is an ecumenical union (i.e. marriage with another [baptised] Christian: Mixed Marriages: Conversations in Theology, Ecumenism, Canon Law and Pastoral Practice. In one of the footnotes he refers the reader for a comparative analysis of this case with that of disparity of worship: a paper by Urbano Navarrete, an expert in canon law, who, we are informed, has described this as "a symbiotic relationship."

That sounded intriguing! But the reference in question was an official Vatican publication: L'impedimento di "disparitas cultus" (Can 1086), a chapter in I Matrimonii Misti, a volume in juridicial studies from the Vatican Library. Dated 1998, it seemed fairly recent, but it was also in Italian. I've never learnt Italian...

Libraries at your service

Undaunted, I opened up a Web browser tab and pointed Firefox at Oxford's online library catalogue system. However, no trace of this chapter or volume in the Bodleian. I did find it on sale from a couple of Italian online book sellers, but it seemed an expensive route. So I trundled over to the Enquiries Desk at the Bod and asked about inter-library loans. According to COPAC, there was no copy available in the UK, so it would require an international inter-library loan. I was encouraged to get in touch directly with the Vatican. So I duly wandered over to the Vatican Web site, found its library, which is currently closed to members of the public. In any case, I filled in an online registration and found a way to submit a query. I received a prompt reply indicating that actually the the Vatican Library generally holds works of antiquity, at least the volume I requested was considered too recent.

Back I went to the Bod and steeled myself to request an international interlibrary loan. According to Worldcat, which can list libraries in order of proximity, there were several European libraries that had the title in stock. I cast my eye down the list and singled out a German library, the Bavarian State Library (positive discrimination - Germans are efficient!) And a few weeks later it arrived.

The Bodleian is a reference-only library, so any items acquired through inter-library loans are subject to these constraints. Furthermore, although I could take notes, I wasn't allowed to photocopy anything myself - that had to be done by the library staff and according to copyright law they could only do this for one chapter. Accordingly I requested the copying of Cardinal Navarrete's chapter, but I became interested in another chapter on pastoral issues - Matrimoni misti e problemi pastorali by Agostino Montan. This meant I had to take notes - in Italian - from a chapter of 30 pages! This is where I was confronted with not having learnt Italian. What to do? Fortunately, my situation wasn't desperate (timewise or linguistically). I had studied French, Spanish and Latin at secondary school and could gain the gist of a paragraph. From this I could see several sections that seemed particularly useful, including some stats about the religious make-up of marriages carried out in Rome, and some interesting pastoral initiatives in some Northern Italian towns and cities involving groups of couples getting together in marriage preparation. It was these that I copied - sloowly, word for word, like a boy in primary school!

In possession of one nicely produced scan of one chapter plus some notes from another, I now needed more accurate translation of the most relevant bits. I pinned up notices in College - Sai leggere l'italiano? and received a resounding zero responses. :-( I started asking any friends who had even dabbled in the language and was offered translations of selected passages at the rate of 1 word a minute! More promising was a kind offer of assistance from one of my father's polyglot friends from church, Tim O'Sullivan, who is competent in most European languages, who knowing my technological leanings offered a particular word of caution...

We may have the technology, but watch out for 'invisible idiots'!

Whilst trying to find a person who could help I was also exploring an automated technological solution. I first had to generate an electronic version of the texts that had been copied and transcribed and I was given a boost as the library-generated photo-copies were nicely done, clear and uniform, enabling very accurate optical character recognition (OCR) translations - even the footnotes were generally accurate, when all I needed really was the body text. Once in possession of an electronic copy I then proceeded to try machine translation, initially through Babelfish. Although I had used Babelfish quite often before for words or short phrases, I had not really tried far more substantial passages of text. Alas, in this case I found it seriously deficient and discounted this tool as an aid.

However, no online search is complete without Google ... and Google's offering impressed me immediately in being so accommodating, happy to consume large chunks of text and produce translations for the whole lot. More importantly, it was a world apart in quality. Why? I think there's a combination of reasons that make it a good match. It uses statistical methods, trained on large corpora of texts. The core texts in question (see e.g. Wikipedia for discussion) were UN documents - they are formal, rambling, extensive and translated into many languages. And Vatican documents are ... likewise! There are few colloquial idioms used. Even so, word combinations can be parsed and interpreted in so many different ways that it's easy to get the wrong end of the stick, as we might say.

Mr. O'Sullivan was keen to relate to me a story that he had heard in the 1960s concerning English-to-Russian translation (when we met it was topical coming shortly after Hilary Clinton 'pushed the wrong button' on a state visit, but at least both sides saw the funny side!). The story, which was probably very popular at the time of the Cold War, ran along the following lines: boffins produced a computer program into which you could input one or more words. Enter a single word and out popped the correct Russian equivalent and vice versa. However, they next tried "out of sight out of mind" and after a slight pause there emerged the Russian equivalent of "invisible idiot"! I gather that it is actually apocryphal, traceable to an earlier period in which scientists were speculating about possible issues - anyway John Hutchins debunks the myth and offers to explain what was actually going on. Even so, you can still catch out many tools by entering a phrase and translating it back again. This is where, I guess, statistical methods are very useful. In any case, where a translation looked odd in a particular context, I would break it up into smaller chunks and translate those separately, repeating the process until it became clearer or made sense.

At the end of the day I read closely perhaps a dozen pages and quoted from just a few paragraphs. That must seem a very poor rate of return on such efforts, but in this instance I'm going to claim it was how I got there that was more informative and entertaining!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

TED Global and Oxford Locals

Around lunchtime on Tuesday, whilst waiting with my shopping bags for the No. 6 bus in Magdalen Street, I saw a queue snaking its way around the bus stop, round the corner, all the way to the Oxford Playhouse. It was not hard to discover what this way about: some large name badges indicated this was the start of TED Global, a conference on 'Technology, Entertainment, Design.' I hope I don't stereotype it by saying that it sounded very Californian, but as I overheard people introduce themselves in the queue, the first place I heard mention was San Francisco.

It ran until yesterday (July 24th). On BBC Radio Oxford, Bill Heine mentioned it briefly in the evening after it had closed, wondering what it was about, and a journalist duly informed him of its broad and inspirational vision. Then it occurred to me that to really share the TED vision, next time they run it here they should have an outdoor session in which they hire the market area in Gloucester Green and engage people outside the theatre/college boxes. All the presenters could have their own stall; there'd probably be room for others. Oxford is very culturally diverse, I'm sure there'd be fruitful encounters and not a little serendipidity. :-)

Friday, April 10, 2009

An Index to Images in Teresa of Avila's 'The Interior Castle'

St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle is widely regarded as a masterpiece concerning mystical prayer. I chose it as the subject of one of my Master's essays because I was intrigued especially by its images, especially the crystalline appearance of the castle and the mansions, nested inside each other like a palmito shrub, such that as one progresses further and further inwards illumination increases until one reaches the source of brightness found at the very centre.

I'm using the English translation by E. Allison Peers, as published in the Spiritual Masters series by Sheed & Ward, 1974. It feels a very good translation, with helpful footnotes, but it has no index. As it is the images I'm particularly interested in, I've generated my own image index, far from complete, but it does at least give a sense of the variety and relative preponderance of certain themes. I'd be happy if others find it useful. (There is available online an alternative translation by the Benedictines of Stanbrook that does have a general index and it's more useful in that it indicates Mansion number and chapter - I may edit the index here along these lines at some point.)

Index to Images

  • angels 81
  • animals 4, 10
  • apartments 89
  • arrow 124
  • basin 44,93,94
  • beauty 11,30
  • bee 8
  • bird 28
  • bite 15
  • black cloth 6
  • body 15,37,50,148
  • breast 45
  • bride 143
  • building 7,16,54
  • bullet 96
  • butterfly 53,54,124,136
  • camarin 89
  • castle 1,3,11,138,147
  • cellar 52
  • colours 9
  • conduit 36,43
  • court[yard] 3
  • creatures 3
  • cross 58
  • crucible 38
  • crystal 1,2,6
  • darkness 6,122-3,
  • diamond 1,2, 115
  • door 3,47,90,134
  • dove 143
  • drunk/intoxicated person 102
  • dust 10
  • exile 2
  • eyes 10
  • file 11
  • fire 77,106,124,125
  • food 54
  • fountains 36,44
  • fragrance 78
  • friend,companion 15,16,66,132
  • gold 38
  • gun 96
  • haven 103
  • heart 32
  • hedgehog 41
  • home 17
  • inhabitants 6,76
  • jewel (pearl etc) 48,97,114
  • king, majesty 1,2,86,138
  • letter 141
  • light 10,115,130,131,132,135
  • lightning 124
  • lover 15
  • mansion(s) 1,30,122
  • marriage,betrothal 86,90,130,134
  • mill 35
  • mirror 7
  • mother 45
  • movement 93,95,96
  • mulberry bush 53
  • neighbour 13
  • painting (Static and moving)115,118
  • palace 89,122
  • palmito 7,8
  • Passion 104,107
  • personnel (butlers, governors, stewards) 6
  • petition 143
  • engagement, pre-nuptials 64,65
  • refuse (rubbish) 44
  • relationship 123,140,146
  • reliquary 114
  • reptiles or lizards 3,49
  • road 26
  • room 8 ,132
  • sea 126
  • seal 57
  • shutters 132
  • silk 54
  • silkworm 53
  • slave 4
  • sound 11,76,79
  • spouse 76-
  • spring 6,36,44
  • stomach 148
  • storm 143
  • stream 6,136
  • sun, sunshine 6,7, 10, 115
  • tears 100
  • thirst 125
  • tortoise 41
  • treasure 4,48,90
  • tree 6,7
  • viper 15
  • visions 88
  • voice/words/locutions 79-85
  • wall 2
  • water 36,37,43,44,93,94, 125,126,136,143
  • wealth 21
  • window 135,
  • wound 77,124,127
  • youth or child 16, 21, 45

Monday, March 16, 2009

Update on the library waltz

I had at the beginning of the spring term (Hilary) described my first term's experiences with the University libraries, including a summary per library of books borrowed or requested from stacks. Here's an update.

  • Theology  6
  • Harris Manchester College  3
  • Social Sciences  2
  • Social and Cultural Anthropology  4
  • Bodleian (ref. only) 2
  • Philosophy  1
  • History Faculty  4
  • St. Cross 1
  • Balfour  2
  • Radcliffe Science 1
  • Indian Institute: 3
  • Rothermere American Institute (ref. only): 1
  • Islamic Studies (ref. only): 1

(includes additional items from reference libraries)

Totals for two terms

  • Social and Cultural Anthropology  18
  • Theology  11
  • Social Sciences  9
  • Harris Manchester College 6
  • Bodleian 5 (may be more - can't remember!)
  • Oriental Institute  5
  • History Faculty  4
  • Balfour (Anthropology) 3
  • Indian Institute: 3
  • Radcliffe Science 3
  • Philosophy  1
  • St. Cross 1
  • Rothermere American Institute (ref. only): 1
  • Islamic Studies (ref. only): 1

I think it gives quite some indication as to the undertaking for anyone who would teach or even set up a religious studies subject area!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Encountering the Miracle Collection of St. Frideswide

Another topic that I'm delving into for an essay takes us back to medieval times, specifically to the end of the 12th century. Here the focus of attention is a figure who actually lived in Anglo-Saxon times: St. Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, but there's not much known about her: the academic literature indicates that there's no contemporary account; the earliest manuscripts concerning her life were written several hundred years later. (See e.g. a brief summary).

Statue of St. Frideswide

However, in 1180 there was a great ceremony to translate her purported bones to a new shrine, carried out under the direction of Prior Philip of the Augustinian Monastery of St. Frideswide. He left us with a record of miracles in a series of narratives, a little over 100 in total. They're written in Latin and apparently, unlike her life stories, there's no English translation available of the miracle collection apart from the odd passage and a few quotes.

At least the collection is available conveniently in printed form in the Acta Sanctorum (Acts of the Saints), which is a compendium of documents detailing the lives of saints, organised according to each saint's feast day. They were published by the Société des Bollandistes from 1643 till 1940 and are accessible online from various sites, I think. I made use of the Chadwyck-Healey database available on subscription. Frideswide's Feast Day is October 19th and the miracles are contained in an appendix. Hence the reference is: Acta Sanctorum. Oct. VIII (Main volume text) Dies Decimanona. De Sancta Frideswida Virgine, Patrona Oxoniensi in Anglia. Appendix ad Acta S. Frideswidae.

Prof. Henry Mayr-Harting and Dr. Simon Yarrow have explored this collection in book chapters ('Functions of a Twelfth Century Shrine' in 'Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis' and in 'Saints and their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-century England' respectively), revealing some fascinating insights, especially in social and economic history. Yet, I think they may have only scratched the surface as a print-out of the collection runs to dozens of pages! It could be studied a great deal more, for further exploration into medieval life regarding the Church's relation to wider society - religious, social, economic etc.

So as a small contribution I am pleased to offer a translation of one of the narratives, aided especially by Whitaker's Words and a windows front-end called Latin Assistant. Many thanks to Joerg Friedrichs for looking over the translation and correcting a few things, but any remaining errors, awkwardness etc should be regarded as mine (I am only an amateur at this)! I'll reproduce the Latin and then present the translation underneath.

The Miracle Narrative

[9][Alteri puellulæ lumen oculorum restituitur.] Erat in eodem pago juvencula quædam Adelitia nomine, extra muros ejusdem pagi habitans h, quæ aliquanto tempore ante beatæ Virginis Translationem, tali correpta fuerat incommodo, quod ciliis oculorum nimio tumore depressis, præ nimia ciliorum gravedine nec oculos aperire, nec quicquam videre poterat. Mater itaque ejus filiæ, materna pietate compatiens, pro salute filiæ medicos consulit, frustra id modicum quod habebat in medicos expendens, languore jugiter ingravescente, et incommodo de die in diem in deterius vergente. Convolat demum mater ad divinæ miserationis asilum, per dies multos ad beatæ Virginis ecclesiam filiam ducens, et pro ejus salute devotissime supplicans. Nec tædium parit dilatio, spes diffidentiam relegat, perseverat impetendo fides, ut humani defectum auxilii divina suppleret potentia. Nec repulsum passa est devotio, desiderantem rei desideratæ consolatur effectus. Quippe feria quinta in Cœna Domini, antequam Missarum agerentur sollempnia, cum in oratione super beatæ Virginis sepulcrum juvencula prostrata persisteret, subito tota ciliorum gravedine tamquam manu scalpente detersa, tumor paulisper resedit, videndique perfecte recepit officium. Profluebat autem diutius ex oculis sanies, et non multo post interjecto tempore, sic divinæ manus beneficio curata est, ut in ea nulla prorsus ægritudinis pristinæ remanerent vestigia.

English Translation

There was in that municipality a certain young woman whose name was Adelitia, living beyond the walls of that municipality, who for some time before the Translation of the blessed Virgin, had been struck by such inconvenience with her eyelids shut from excessive swelling, and because of very great catarrh of the eyelids she couldn't open her eyes and hence she could not see anything. And so the daughter's mother, compassionate with maternal devotion, for the sake of her daughter's health consulted a doctor, spending that small amount she had in vain, as the feebleness was constantly growing more serious and the inconvenience was getting worse day by day, going downhill.

Finally, the mother had recourse to the asylum1 of divine mercy, for many days taking her daughter to the church of the blessed Virgin, and praying most devoutly for her health. And the delay did not bring weariness, [for] hope eased the doubts, faith persisted by intense petitioning, so that divine power could make up for the inadequacy of human help. And her devotion was unyielding2, as her longing for the [anticipated] outcome of her yearning had a consoling effect.

In fact, on Maundy Thursday, before the solemnities of the Mass were carried out, while the young girl lay prostrate in prayer over the tomb of the blessed Virgin, suddenly just as if all the catarrh of her eyelids was surgically removed by hand, the swelling shortly subsided, and she was re-installed into the capacity of seeing perfectly. Moreover, pus was continually flowing out of the eyes, and not much later, she was cured by the kindness of the divine hand, in such a way that there remained in her absolutely no vestiges of the original sickness.


  • For asilum read asylum since a gad-fly doesn't make sense! (It was explained to me that the use of 'y' is uncommon and this was originally a Greek word).

Perhaps a community wiki would be a good way to enable much more of this collection to be translated?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Observations on EHRC report: some data on partnerships between Christians and non-Christians

The Equality and Human Rights Commission published on Monday some research carried out By Essex University into UK ethnicity. The report by Lucinda Platt is entitled Ethnicity and Family: Relationships within and between ethnic groups: An analysis using the Labour Force Survey at the Institute for Social & Economic Research and featured quite prominently in an article on the BBC News Web site.

What the title and the BBC article doesn't make explicit is that this survey contained religious-related data. Since the beginning of this decade, the UK Government has been more active in including religion in demographic analyses - most notably including for the first time in the 2001 National Census a question about religious affiliation. Here, data is drawn from the Labour Force Survey, which is a quarterly longitudinal survey that involves about 60,000 households selected according to postcode - it's a good size, certainly good enough for considering Christian identity. For reference, you can take a look at some details about basic specification highlighting the questions on ethnicity and much more comprehensive treatment in the User Guide

As with the census, some attention is given to religion and in recent years there have been two questions. Using as a guide the [software] specification of the form used in 2008, the question is put as follows:


What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?

  1. Christian
  2. Buddhist
  3. Hindu
  4. Jewish
  5. Muslim
  6. Sikh
  7. Any other religion
  8. Or no religion at all

There are of course many other religions - MultiFaithNet, for example, adds Baha'i, Jainism and Zoroastrianism - but I guess the six listed are considered the most numerous. Also it is useful to distinguish between identity and practice, which is sometimes catered for in another question: Do you consider that you are actively practising your religion? However, it appears to have been only sporadically incorporated.

Why my interest? As part of my course in religious studies I'm intending to write an essay concerning the Catholic Church's attitudes, responses etc to Catholics marrying non-Catholics (such was the case of my parents) and am seeking to gain some idea of general trends to support my contention that this is an issue that needs addressing!

So what are the findings? First, I make a disclaimer that I'm not a statistician!

Tables 23 to 30 report on partnership patterns according to religious affiliation. If we concentrate on those who designated themselves as Christians, the pattern of data is as follows:

Percentage of Christian with no partner | Percentage of Christian-Christian partnerships | Percentage of Christian with a partner from a different religion.

Tables 25-30 are particularly interesting because they show figures by age bands, which can give some indication of trends. To keep things simple, I'll just confine our attention to percentage figures for Christian men who are in a couple [defined as cohabitees and legally married]:

Cohort aged 16-29:
88 (same religion) 12 (different religion)

Cohort aged 30-59:
95 (same religion) 5 (different religion)

Cohort aged 60+: 98 (same religion) 2 (different religion)

(Note that the sample sizes for 16-29 are much smaller than the other two, but still run into thousands.)

The demographic pattern seems pretty clear to me - for each successive generation, more and more of the couples where one partner is Christian are in partnerships with someone who is not baptised. As far as I know, there are only figures for denomination for Northern Ireland, so we can't find out from the original data any indication of what proportion of Christians here are Catholics, but given that the proportion of those in partnerships with those of another religion or none goes up several hundred percent when comparing the oldest to youngest cohort, it appears very significant and meriting attention of any large Christian denomination.

I expect that in future there'll be a lot more research delving into the UK's plural religious landscape!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Waltzing around the libraries

It's Week 0, bringing very quickly the prospect of another term. I realize I've hardly posted anything at all about my course, so before I feel deluged with reading and essays, I'll offer a glimpse of what a day is like on my course (the M.St. in the Study of Religion). The main theme will be libraries.

This is a taught course, so I have tutorials, especially on the Nature of Religion. We've already received in advance a reading list for all the tutorial sessions this term, arranged week by week. Typically they consist of books and conference papers and the first port of call is the online library catalogue - the entrance is through SOLO, which is a kind of portal offering a number of services. The two that I use most are OLIS and Oxford e-Journals. OLIS has a remarkably high proportion of the millions of (physical) items catalogued; and with the e-Journals service, the University has subscriptions to many electronic editions of journals, all of which are now conveniently available through single sign-on.

So you can plan beforehand where you need to go to find X, Y and Z. (I think it would make a nice project in operational research / mobile learning to develop a tool where you could feed in a reading list, your travel preferences (foot, bike etc) and then out pops your itinerary... actually just these kinds of ideas have been bounced around in the Erewhon project ...)

There are some grand and elegant library spaces, but for myself, I prefer to borrow books to read in the comfort of my home, with a cup of tea. So on Monday, equipped with a reading list, scribbled with libraries and shelf numbers, I descended on the town, arriving first in the Social and Cultural Anthropology library (aka Tylor Library). It's a departmental library that sprawls across several rooms and a couple of floors - fairly typical arrangement. Like many (most?) departmental libraries, it opens its doors to graduate students from around the University. It has a photocopier, but its own card system - the Bodleian photocopy card doesn't work here.

After some copying and a book loan (concerning Hindu diaspora), I jogged down the Banbury Road to OUCS to join the meditation group there just before they got started. I'm very happy that they keep this going and allow me to join after I left the department. :-)

Then lunch in college (St. Cross), a bit of e-mail in the common room, and on into town. I tried to collect lecture lists for this term from OUP, but they were closed: a sign indicated "stock taking." Hmmm.. Subsequently I popped into Blackwells, made my way upstairs to the 2nd hand department and bought a copy of 'Teresa of Avila' ('Outstanding Christian Thinkers' series) by Rowan Williams, now Archbishop of Canterbury. Now I can find out a bit more about the way he thinks.

Then on to the Social Sciences Library, which is in a modern building, with large rectangular floor areas. I found their photocopiers do accept Bodleian photocopy cards and so I copied an article from a journal on diaspora, this one focusing on Muslims in Ethiopia and Canada. Afterwards, coming across the science area, I made my final call at the Radcliffe Science Library and bumped into a neighbour from the Close, who has been doing research there for many years. We exchanged a few words about aspects of healing - I'm hoping to write an essay that will focus on this in the Medieval period in relation to the translation of St. Frideswide's purported relics. More large rectangular floor spaces. I had a reference to 'BP..' (Dewey Classifications system) but initially all I could find were letters near the end of the alphabet - plenty of familiar QAs (Mathematics). Eventually found 'Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe' right towards one corner.

Curious to see the spread of libraries, I've looked at the loans record for last term and come up with the following figures (apologies for the poor formatting, but I don't find it easy to control the styling in blogger):



Social and
Cultural Anthro.

Oriental Institute

Social Sciences

Radcliffe Science

Balfour (Pitt Rivers)

Harris Manc. College

Subject Area

Nature of Religion 213 72 1
Buddhism315  12
5 14 5 7 2 1 3

Maybe a little surprising... Anyway, I hope to repeat this exercise at the end of this term.