by Digitalnun on January 30, 2015
The word ‘victim’ apparently did not enter the English language until the late fifteenth century, when it denoted a creature killed as a religious sacrifice (cf the Latin, victima). Only subsequently did it acquire its modern meanings of someone harmed or injured as a result of crime/accident (now its primary meaning), a person who has been tricked/duped, or someone who feels helpless in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment. That in itself is interesting, and I’d like to examine how and why there was such a shift from the religious and universal to the secular and individual — and at that time. I can hazard a few guesses, but they are not really to my purpose. What really interests me is the way in which the concept of victimhood has expanded.
One could be forgiven for thinking we are all victims nowadays. There is always someone to blame for whatever is going wrong in our lives (blame = another word of religious origin, meaning to blaspheme). Whether we’re talking about public service cuts, the milk price, or boorish behaviour, those who suffer the consequences are victims of Tory policies/profiteering supermarkets/loutish lads and ladettes. There may be some truth in the allegations, but why should we be so keen to adopt the language of victimhood and apply it to ourselves or others? Does it let us off the hook somehow or allow us a sympathy that might otherwise be denied? For example, I recently heard someone refer to ‘cancer victims’. I have never thought of myself as a victim just because I have cancer. As far as I know, nothing in my life-style is responsible for the particular cancer I have, and it would be absurd to blame my ancestors for the genes they bequeathed me. It is just ‘one of those things’. I see no point in railing against fate or God. No one is to blame.
I think it may be significant that both ‘victim’ and ‘blame’ are religious terms we have adapted to secular contexts. They retain (some of) their power to shock and awe, especially when we make verbs of them. To victimize someone conjures up a horrible picture of cruelty and injustice inflicted on another; to blame someone suggests pinning responsibility for something bad on another person. In both cases, we use the words to condemn. The evil is placed safely outside and beyond us; and that, I think, is the problem.
Very often we use the language of victimhood to evade responsibility ourselves or to make another pay. Sometimes, this can be taken to absurd lengths. To give another example. I’m a Catholic, but I don’t feel personal responsibility for the slaves owned by Christians in the fourth century or the putting to death of Cathars in the twelfth any more than I imagine modern Eqyptians feel for the enslavement of various peoples under the pharoahs or the death of Christian subjects in later epochs. Of course, the nearer we are in time to the events in question, the more difficult it is to think clearly about these things. We are tempted to view everything the same way and use the same language, which ultimately cheapens not only the language we use but deadens our understanding of the horrors we are talking about. I am appalled by the African slave trade, for instance, but I am uneasy about comparing it to the systematic genocide of the Holocaust: six million people murdered in six years because they were Jews is an enormity one cannot get one’s head round. The evils of the slave trade over centuries are also an enormity, but the common factors — cruelty, injustice, death — are complicated by such things as the involvement of Arab/African traders and, cynical though it may sound, the fact that those involved in it were not such good record-keepers as the Nazis. I feel deep shame that human beings can behave so badly to one another, but how can I apologize for that in which I had no part? I imagine my serf ancestors would understand, even if no one else does.
For me, as a Christian, there is only one true Victim: the mediator between God and ourselves, Jesus Christ, who gave his life on the cross and has forgiven every sin of which we are guilty. Forgiveness frees, whereas blame merely imprisons further. Christ on the cross shows us the Victor-Victim paradox. We are now able to shoulder our own responsibility in union with him and in so doing discover it is nothing we need fear or run away from.
At three o’clock this afternoon there will be a short pause in the monastery when, as on every Friday, we shall mentally stand beside the cross and thank God for redeeming us in Christ. In that moment of silent prayer we gather together all the needs of a wounded world and ask God to have mercy. The language of victimhood will again resonate with its true meaning
by Digitalnun on January 29, 2015
People sometimes wonder what it is that causes me to groan about my inbox. Mainly, it is the realisation that even if I lived to be 100 and devoted three or four hours a day to it, I would never really answer all the emails or enquiries we receive. The fact that I am tempted to think some of them as, ah, unnecessary, only adds to the complicated feelings of guilt and irritation that tend to sweep over me as I survey the morning’s intake. Fortunately, I’m a fairly equable person, so I work slowly through the various requests as best I can: explaining Catholic teaching, identifying paintings and texts where I can, gently explaining why I can’t help identify ‘Aunty Mary who was a nun in 1900s’, referring people back to the questions already answered on our websites. Inevitably, the backlog of those awaiting answers grows day by day, and I feel worse and worse about those pushed to the back of the queue by a combination of laziness and reluctance on my part. Then there are the ‘haters and baiters’ who are sometimes disarmed by a patient, courteous response, and others who have to be ignored for the sake of one’s own sanity. Just occasionally I’ll throw caution to the winds and allow myself to say what I could say without hesitation were I seen as a barrister or a banker rather than a Benedictine nun, but then I must be prepared for the howl of indignant protest that will follow; and truth to tell, I’m not always ready for that.
I am sure that, mutatis mutandis, every reader of this blog could identify with some of what I’ve written. In your case, it may not be emails that trouble you but the demands of your job or family and friends, and the secret fear that you may not be up to them. Most of us have to worry about something: ensuring we can meet our bills being not the least of them. Even the scholar, disporting himself or herself in the groves of Academe, has to keep publishing to meet the expected targets (cue for wry smile from academic readers). It is very easy, as well as true, to say that worry is a great hindrance in the spiritual life; but unless we are unusually blessed, not worrying about anything is a counsel of unattainable perfection. The only solution I can propose is the one I myself adopt: chapter 68 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Doing the Impossible. I complain to the Lord, insist that I’m not up to what he asks, and then get on with things. The point being that God does not ask perfection of us, only that we try. It is we who are the perfectionists, not God. If you doubt that, look around you this morning. From the faces on the train to the shape of the streets and the sogginess of the January grass, everything derives its beauty and character from the fact that it isn’t ‘perfect’. The messiness of life, its failures and struggles, are exactly what make it a grace and a blessing. The secret of my inbox is to have come half-way to learning that myself.
by Digitalnun on January 26, 2015
I have refrained from commenting on Cardinal Burke’s recent New Evangelisation interview on ‘The Catholic “Man-Crisis” and What to Do About It’ (which you can read here) for the simple reason that so many others already have. But today’s feast of SS Timothy and Titus, and the consecration of the Revd Libby Lane as Anglican bishop of Stockport, make reflection on pastoral office and the way in which we view the Church inevitable.
St Paul’s advice to Timothy and Titus is eminently practical. In the case of Timothy, he pays a gracious compliment to the faith of Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and Eunice, his mother, and the role both played in his Christian formation. It is a reminder of a much more fluid situation than now exists in the Church, where the role of women as leaders was less controversial — reflecting, perhaps, the contradictions, as we might call them, of the status of women in Ancient society. We look at the past through the lens of several hundred years of history, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid being influenced by the way in which later generations have circumscribed the role of women — even demonising the feminine at times in order to maintain a particular theory of masculine purity.
Cardinal Burke pays one or two gracious compliments to ‘wonderful women’ in the Church, but I hope I may be forgiven for feeling that they are rather on a par with priestly references to ‘the good sisters’, i.e. uttered out of a sense of obligation rather than genuine conviction. The subject he is addressing is important: the decline of Catholic men’s involvement in the Church in the U.S.A. but his suggestion that a root cause of this is the feminisation of the Church is, frankly, difficult to accept when one sees how he articulates it. Quite apart from the fact that the whole Church is eternally feminine before God, I have not noticed women being any less keen than men on good liturgy, nor do I think they can be blamed for liturgical abuses. Indeed, in my experience, it is men rather than women who fuss about lace and silk and sometimes obscure the liturgical action by crowding the sanctuary with ‘flower-pot’ servers — or, at the other extreme, adopt a casual and self-referential approach to the Mass which makes the whole celebration slovenly. The cardinal’s repeated invocation of ‘manly discipline’ and ‘manly identity’ is hardly a substitute for thinking through what the Church is, how she operates and how she conveys a sense of Christian vocation to all her children. To appeal to a form of family life that, for good or ill, is no longer the common experience of most American Catholics is hardly helpful. Just as Timothy and Titus had to deal with the actual experience of the people of Ephesus and Crete, so must we. Our sense of the Church and her mission grows out of our ordinary, everyday life and is both transformed and transforming by reason of its consecration through exposure to scripture and the sacraments.
What I think Cardinal Burke’s interview highlights is the sheer awkwardness of trying to maintain a clear masculine/feminine divide in the way in which we understand service in the Church. Many men have highly developed ‘feminine’ sides; many women have highly developed ‘masculine’ sides. What matters is that all are put to work, with humility and faith. They are God-given graces, meant for building up the Body of Christ. We think of Mary Magdalene as the ‘apostle to the apostles,’ the Blessed Virgin Mary as the mother of the Church as well as Mother of God; and as St Paul reminds us, there are now no distinctions between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ. That is not to downplay the importance or uniqueness of the gifts men bring to the Church, whether as priests, religious or laity. It is to recognize that the Church is incomplete without all her children.
Perhaps today we might think and pray about how we can encourage one another, men and women, to be what we are meant to be — ‘sons in the Son’, the Bride of Christ, one in faith and love. We do not need to try to score points off one another; still less do we need to be afraid of one another.
by Digitalnun on January 24, 2015
‘Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise’— I think not. Anyone with a desire for truth will know that powerful feeling that makes one want truth at any cost. I remember tearing up several chapters of my Ph.D. thesis when I realised that the publication of a book I hadn’t known was in the offing made part of my own work redundant and some of it, to my mind, just plain wrong. I could have persisted in arguing my case, but I was no longer convinced of its truth.
We are nearing the end of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity and I have been reflecting on the way in which the desire for truth leads some people to embrace Christianity for the first time, and others to move from one expression of it to another. Quite a lot has been written about the psychology of conversion. I don’t want to get into arguments about whether converts to Catholicism are made to feel inferior, as some claim, or are better informed than ‘cradle Catholics’, as others claim. We probably all have a store of anecdotes to prove or disprove both views! What interests me is the role knowledge plays in the conversion process and in the mutual understanding and respect that I believe to be an important element in seeking unity within one’s own Church and the Christian body as a whole.
I have ceased to be shocked by the ignorance some Catholics display of their own Church’s teaching. All newcomers to the monastery are now given a foundation course in Christian doctrine, and we are not alone in that. One can no longer take for granted familiarity with the scriptures or the ancient formulations of faith, let alone the historical and theological insights of more recent centuries. How much less can one assume any deep knowledge of the teaching and practice of other Churches to which one has never belonged. For instance, even though I would say my own knowledege of Anglicanism is sketchy and theoretical, despite my having read a lot of Anglican theology over the years and having many good Anglican friends, I wince when I hear some of my peers pronounce on what Anglicans do and do not believe. When it comes to some of the numerically smaller Churches, I admit defeat. I only get similarly worked up when I hear people pronouncing on what Catholics believe and getting it wrong!
All of which brings me to my point. I think we often approach the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity with a certain degree of minimalism. Our expectations are low, and although we dutifully pray and join together in meetings and colloquia which usually conclude with an act of joint worship, our desire to know and understand the other’s faith and practice is often perfunctory. We do not want to put the hard work in; or we are a little insecure and do not want our own sometimes wobbly faith to be challenged in a way we feel we can’t handle; or the cares and worries of this life get in the way and we simply never get around to it. I think that if we are genuinely praying for unity, that won’t do. We have to make some effort to understand, and the only way to do that is to inform ourselves.
The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity provides a useful focus but is really meant as a spring-board for a much larger and longer enterprise. Whether we are talking about the Church to which we belong or the wider Christian body, unity isn’t an optional extra, as though we could somehow decide for ourselves whether to seek it or not. Nor is it attained by pretence or ignoring differences, as though our version of charity somehow scuppered truth. On the contrary, truth is a very important form of real charity. As we come towards the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer, therefore, perhaps we could all search our own hearts and see if we oughtn’t to make more of an effort to inform ourselves about our own faith and the faith of others. To encourage us we have the prayer of our High Priest, Jesus Christ, that we may be one, as he and the Father are one. With him praying for us, can the task be so very arduous?
I forgot to say that reflecting on the life and work of St Francis de Sales, whose feast is today, is very apt for the topic of this post: see the Wikipedia summary if you don’t know him http://bit.ly/1CzJYAS
by Digitalnun on January 20, 2015
On this day 750 years ago the Great Parliament summoned by Simon de Montfort in the name of the king met in the Chapter House at Westminster. It is remembered today chiefly for its length (it lasted until March, much longer than parliaments usually did) and because, for the first time, alongside the barons, senior churchmen and knights were elected burgesses. The irony of this innovation being the creation of Simon is not lost on historians, but democracy is like that: the ideal is beautiful, but its working out is often messy and even a little grubby.
Nowadays even the ideal is often under attack — either openly, as in the case of those who abstract themselves from the democratic process, believing that another form of government, based on other principles than one person one vote, would be better, or covertly, as in the case of those who cynically observe the shortcomings of politicians and opt not to exercise their right to vote. There are also those who are deeply troubled by some of the decisions arrived at as a result of the democratic process — the current law on abortion, for example — and are reluctant to endorse what their conscience forbids. What we have to remember is that, flawed though our democracy may be, there is no fairer system available to us; and, as Andrew Graystone pertinently remarked this morning, democracy cannot defend itself: if it is not used, it ceases to exist. Our very ability to challenge the decisions of Parliament is part of our democratic heritage, a hard-won freedom, one that could easily be lost through indifference or laziness.
This morning, when we are still reflecting on the consequences of Charlie Hebdo and debating what we mean by free speech and whether or not it has limits, we might pause for a few moments to think about our understanding of democracy and the way in which we exercise not only our rights but also our duties. It is often forgotten that if we have the right to choose our government, we also have the duty to ensure that the government we choose is as good as possible, serving not just the narrow interests of a particular group or class but benefiting the whole people. That means trying to let go of our prejudices and taking the trouble to find out what each party actually proposes. In one hundred days we shall be going to the polls in a General Election. We cannot separate politics from morality, from the way we live. As in Simon de Montfort’s day, so in ours, what we decide and what we do may have long-lasting consequences. May I suggest we start asking the guidance of the Holy Spirit now?
by Digitalnun on January 19, 2015
St Wulstan of Worcester (died 1095) is one of those saints who seem at once remote yet very close. A well-connected cleric of the late Anglo-Saxon period whose ecclesiastical career suffered barely a hiccup at the Norman Conquest, he was nevertheless a conventionally devout man who insisted on praying the monastic office as he travelled round his diocese, often annoying his staff by repeating lines he found especially attractive. William of Malmesbury turned Colman’s original account of him into Latin and so gave it widespread currency. His pages show us a man of singular sweetness of character whose involvement in all the usual activities of a churchman of his day and neat navigation of some of the more choppy political waters was accompanied by a deeply personal love of Christ. Although not a scholarly man himself, Wulstan was a friend of Robert of Losinga, bishop of Hereford, who was well-known as a mathematician and astronomer. For us today Wulstan’s life has a further element worth pondering. He worked tirelessly to end the slave trade and was credited, along with Lanfranc, with putting a stop to the transport of slaves from Bristol.
That sounds a very modern note, doesn’t it? Pope Francis reminded us recently that the Church is committed to ending the evil of trafficking and modern varieties of slavery, calling it ‘an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ’. No one can be ignorant of the many forms of slavery that exist in society today, although we do not always see how we ourselves may be involved in them. From the young people trafficked as prostitutes the world over to the bonded labourers of overseas factories and the illegal immigrants working long hours for next to nothing in Britain, slavery is a terrible reality. On this second day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian unity, let us ask ourselves how we can work together to put an end to this evil in our midst. The Anglo-Saxon Wulstan and the Italo-Norman Lanfranc overcame their differences to put an end to the Bristol slave trade in the eleventh century. Oughtn’t we, in the twenty-first, to be able to do the same?
by Digitalnun on January 18, 2015
Last year I wrote about the three kinds of unity for which we strive as Christians. Both the post itself (which you can read here) and the discussion in the comments section strike me as still valid. A recent experience on Facebook has convinced me, however, that we have a long way to go before we all attain to the kind of theological and historical fluency we need in order to be able to think about any kind of institutional unity. That leaves us with the need to work for unity within the Church to which we belong, and the everyday, pragmatic unity of working and praying alongside each other even if we cannot share the same sacraments or institutional structures.
Of these two, I think working for the unity of the Church to which we belong is the bigger challenge. Family quarrels are always more passionate than any other. We know each other too well, and, au fond, love each other too deeply, to retreat into polite disagreement. We care; and because we care, we are ready to fight tooth and nail. There is just one little problem with this nowadays. The digital revolution means that nothing can be kept private for very long, and when outsiders eavesdrop on the quarrelling, they are apt to draw the wrong conclusions. One could be forgiven for thinking sometimes that the Catholic Church is divided into two camps: Benedict XVI v. Francis, Tridentine v. Novus Ordo, Europe v. the rest of the world. It all smacks of ‘I am for Paul; I am for Apollos,’ doesn’t it? It matters, because only from the unity of the Church can the quest for further unity among Christians proceed. We can try to kid ourselves that we are working for unity by attending all kinds of prayer groups and meetings and making all sorts of ecumenical gestures, but unless we are united in the heart of the Church to which we belong, we are chasing a chimera.
So, on this first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, may I propose a little soul-searching? I suggest we each spend a moment or two thinking about the Church to which we belong and our membership of it. Do we contribute to its unity or detract from it? Does our unity impell us to seek unity with other Christians, or do we use ecumenism as a way of hiding from ourselves our own lack of commitment? The answers we give may not be what we would like, but unless we are honest with ourselves and others, how can we truly seek the unity for which Christ prayed?
by Digitalnun on January 16, 2015
Yesterday was the feast of Saints Maurus and Placid, and in our community it’s the day when the novices are allowed to run riot (with all due monastic restraint, of course). As we don’t have any novices at present, I generously offered my services and did a bit of tail-chasing and bikkie-scrounging in the hope of catching Them off-guard. It helped that They were distracted by builders. Eventually, I got my opportunity, pinned BigSis to the ground and threatened to lick her to death if she didn’t let me blog today. She gave way easily enough and mumbled something about a little nonsense not hurting anyone and perhaps if readers persevered to the end they’d find a message somewhere. Sooooooo, I thought I’d tell you about my PBGV.
I am often asked what PBGV stands for. It is the name of my breed: Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen. What that means in English is that I am a small(ish), rough-coated hound from the Vendée, the Pays-de-la-Loire region in west-central France. You can read about our aimiable characteristics here and see a photo of my grand-daughter, Jilly, into the bargain.
For much of my monastic life, I was just Bro Duncan, the wise old man stationed by the door of the monastery who welcomed guests and did a quick check for contraband bikkies, etc. I didn’t have any letters after my name. Then the light dawned. Everybody has letters after their names these days! In the name of equality for dogs, therefore, we should, too. I suggested that adding PBGV to Bro Duncan would be quite distinguished and would lead to lots of interesting speculation about which Order I belong to. They were not keen at first and said all sorts of unhelpful things like, ‘You’re a Benedictine dog. We don’t put letters after our names. We leave that to the modern Orders.’ and ‘Don’t you think you’re a tad small to carry such a lengthy addition to your name?’
I was stung. I drew myself up to my full fifteen and a half inches at the shoulder and said, with all the dignity of my breed, that I was being discriminated against. It was my canine right to have letters after my name. I got nowhere. So I changed tactics and started to argue that it would be a delicious joke against humans and the ridiculous things they value — possessions and status and absurdities like that. I kept at it with all the tenacity for which my breed is famous. Then came my crunch argument: God looks at the heart, not the outward show; and although I think He must have had fun when He created me, all whiskers and big ears, I think I please Him best by being loving and kind to all whom I meet. He gave me a good heart, worth infinitely more than any honour or distinction. I am a very doggy dog, a happy hound, I cheer people up. They crumpled at that. They admitted that I am very friendly and treat everyone with the same doggy kindness, so perhaps a PBGV would be justified. Result!
And that, my friends, is how I have been Bro Duncan PBGV ever since.