On Being Positive

by Digitalnun on July 24, 2014

A Twitter friend took me gently to task for a recent post about being cheerful, reminding me that those afflicted by depression often see in such postings an exhortation to ‘buck up’ or ‘cheer up’, as though it were in their power to do so. Anyone who has had any personal experience of depression, whether in themselves or in another, knows what an impossibility that is. Perhaps, however, there is something to be said for trying to be positive.

For once, the dictionary is not the best place to start one’s reflection. If you look, you’ll find that although the word derives from the Latin ponere, to put, it very soon acquired a more specific meaning than the one I should have liked it to have had (‘constructive’). It is all to do with law and being very definite, allowing no questions. That kind of being positive can be extremely dangerous. Happily, many people do use the word ‘positive’ in my preferred sense of ‘constructive’. So what does it mean to be positive/constructive? What effect does it have, on oneself and on others?

In the first place, I think it means guardianship of one’s thoughts and emotions so that what one says or does is not destructive of anyone or anything. It is very easy to allow a careless word or look to convey negativity. Taking the shine off another’s joy is mean by any standards, but who among us has never done that? The frown, the sarcastic retort, they are all potentially destructive, however much we may want to excuse them to ourselves. I think being positive also means taking notice of what is going on around us. How often do we get to the end of the day and realise that the sins of omission have formed a deep litter all around us, and we never noticed! We simply weren’t available to anyone except ourselves. Sometimes, I regret to say, that unavailability extends to God. The prayers we have said are rather like the tax collector’s in the Gospel: said to ourselves not to Him.

There is another side to being positive which I myself have found helpful although it is almost embarrassingly obvious to mention. It is the recognition that whatever may be the consuming anxiety or irritation of the moment, it is transitory. We are children of eternity, although we sometimes act otherwise. Death, illness, injustice, we must face them all, but if we can pause, even for a moment, and register that what we feel now is not necessarily what we shall feel always, there is room for hope and an acceptance that may transform the situation in which we find ourselves. God wills only our good. Being positive opens us up to that — and to Him.


Waging War with Civilians and Other Horrors

by Digitalnun on July 23, 2014

It can be very hard to understand why anyone should wish to use bullets, bombs, kidnapping, torture and other horrors to achieve their aims, yet that is precisely what is happening in many parts of the world. Hamas wants to destroy Israel so rains down rocket-fire; Israel wants to destroy Gaza so rains down air-strikes and ground offensives; ISIS wants to eliminate anyone who thinks or believes differently so uses bully-boy tactics on Christians and other religious groups; Boko Haram has its own vision, if one can call it that, for Nigeria and has no scruples about using kidnap and terror against the civilian population. In every case, it is civilians who suffer most; and as far as I can see, the shocking truth is that civilian suffering is what is intended. If enough civilians die, there will be a shift in thinking; existing power-structures will crumble; victory will have been won.

It would naive to believe that waging war with civilians is a novelty. Sadly, it has always been so; but today’s weaponry makes it easier and deadlier than ever. That raises all kinds of moral questions about Just War theory, individual/collective responsibility, the role of Superpowers and so on. I’m not sure what bloggers and others have to contribute to the debate, but perhaps thinking in terms of ‘debate’ itself contributes to the problem. We are not talking about something abstract and ultimately harmless but about human lives. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and remember that what is done, or not done, today affects not only the present generation but generations to come. Wars are rarely born of sudden misunderstandings or power-grabs. They tend to come from long-simmering feuds and resentments, from the memory of hurts, real or imagined, that we all carry within us. Perhaps there is something there for us all to think about today.


On Being Cheerful

by Digitalnun on July 21, 2014

I think cheerfulness is an under-rated virtue. To make others happy or light-hearted (which is what cheerfulness does) is indeed to strengthen them (which is what virtue does). But being cheerful is slightly different from cheerfulness itself. It implies something more lasting than a passing feeling, a transient mood; something that goes deeper than the smile on the face or the merry quip on the lips. It implies, I think, that one has acquired that stained-glass quality of letting the light shine through. To do that, one must first let the Light (note the capital letter) in. These lovely sunny days we are enjoying at the moment lift the mood but only the Light within can transform lives. Being cheerful has much to commend it.


The Destruction of Christianity in the Middle East

by Digitalnun on July 20, 2014

It is one of those beautiful Sunday mornings England seems to do so well: sunlight streams across wet grass and the air is filled with the busy chatter of sparrows and the sweet, milky smell of the calves across the way. In hundreds of churches people will be gathering, as we ourselves will gather, to sing the praises of God, ask his intercession and celebrate his sacraments. It is a world away from the horrors of war and exile; but war and exile is precisely what many people are experiencing. There are over 50 million refugees in the world today, and yesterday their number was increased as Christians fled Mosul, Iraq, and those who could, fled northern Gaza.

I find it heartbreaking that we as a nation are standing by as the ancient heartlands of Christianity are ripped apart and destroyed. Whatever may be happening elsewhere in the world, Christians in the Middle East are disappearing fast. It will not be long before the only ones to be found in Syria and Iraq, for example, will be foreign visitors. That matters, and I, for one, am appalled that the British Foreign Office, to the best of my knowledge, has STILL said nothing — although it has said a great deal about Russia and Ukraine in the past 72 hours.

Why should we be concerned? The first reason is that we are talking about human beings who have a right to life and liberty being driven from their homes by the ISIS campaign of terror and by other militants who want to see Christianity destroyed. That is indefensible. The second reason is more complex. The destruction of Christian holy places, the desecration of ancient sites, the profanation of holy things, bites into the soul of every Christian in ways we do not always admit. We are not all spirit: we are flesh and blood, and we need signs and symbols to help us along. People come to the monastery here because they know they will find enfleshed, so to say, a way of prayer and seeking God that has centuries of lived experience behind it. The Christians of the Middle East enable us, through their very presence in the ancient holy places, to draw close to the sources of our belief and practice. They have given life to the Churches of the West, but now they themselves face death.

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to ask again a question I have often posed. If one man’s death diminishes us, how much more that of a whole people?


The Christians of Mosul

by Digitalnun on July 19, 2014

It is sometimes forgotten that there were Christians in what we now call Iraq long before there were Muslims. By noon today, however, it is expected that there will be none left in the city of Mosul, where Isis has faced them with a deadly ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a tax or die. See this BBC news report for background.

This item of news didn’t make the front page of today’s BBC web-site (it is buried deep inside), yet it represents a sickening attempt to violate the consciences of thousands of people and the very real possibility of mass murder. It highlights the difficulty we in the West have in dealing with the religious dimension of conflicts in the Middle East. Part of the problem is that many of us no longer take religion seriously enough to consider how it motivates people and are woefully ignorant both of its teachings and its history. Most of us can’t get inside the mentality of Isis and its particular understanding of Islam so tend to dismiss the kind of ultimatum posed to the Christians of Mosul as mere posturing. We believe in freedom of religion, we say, by which we mean the freedom to worship according to our own beliefs. There are a few limitations on such religious freedom. Human sacrifice, for example, is not permissible, but by and large, we follow the principle of ‘live and let live’. If you want to follow some cranky religion, you do so; just don’t expect me to follow suit. That is not how a member of Isis would see things. It is not how things are in Saudi Arabia. So what do we in the West do?

We know perfectly well that at an international level what ‘we’ do is determined by our respective governments and the political and economic interests of the moment. That is not always as cynical a proposition as it may sound (think energy supplies and European winters). What we do at a personal level, however, is just as important. We have to pray, and we have to protest. We simply cannot stand by mute and uncomplaining when our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq are being chased from their homes and threatened with death. Or can we?


Death from the Skies

by Digitalnun on July 18, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, at about the time that a Malaysia Airlines jet was being blown apart in the skies above Ukraine and the brief ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ended with renewed rocket fire and air strikes, I looked up into the peaceful blue skies above Herefordshire and thought, not for the first time, that there is something peculiarly dreadful about death coming suddenly and unexpectedly from the skies. We half-expect danger on the ground or in the water. We have thousands of years of collective experience of predators, human enemies and sea-storms taking us by surprise; but missiles, rockets and bombs dropped from the air, these are somehow different. They come so swiftly and the destruction they wreak is, despite what the perpetrators say, essentially indiscriminate.

As the death toll in Gaza rises and the likelihood that the Malaysia Airlines jet was hit by a missile sourced from Russia increases, international tensions also rise. The West focuses upon the Middle East and Russia, but many in Asia are asking what China intends. The world looks as fragile and volatile as it ever has. The Christian response — trust, prayer, loving surrender — probably looks ‘inadequate’ to those who believe that all the world’s problems can be solved by action; but there are times when human action seems only to complicate and confuse. As we pray for peace, we need to remember that peace has to start somewhere, in the individual human resolve to forgive and, what is perhaps still harder, accept forgiveness. It is no good lamenting what a terrible state the world is in if we do not look into our own hearts and see what needs to be changed there. The choice before us is always, as Deuteronomy says, between life and death. Let us choose life.


A Recycled Blog Post

by Digitalnun on July 17, 2014

On this feast of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne, I’d like to recycle the blog post you will find here. This week will see the second reading of Lord Falconer’s Bill on Assisted Dying, and I think we need the kind of clarity of vision, firmness of purpose and, above all, the fidelity displayed by the Carmelite nuns in the face of Robespierre’s Terror. Many who have argued in favour of the bill do not seem to have read through its clauses or thought about its implications. Some of those who have argued against the bill seem not to have grasped the reality of others’ fears. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the peers today.


Angels and Pins or The Day After Synod

by Digitalnun on July 15, 2014

One needs to know quite a lot of philosophy to understand St Bonaventure, yet I wouldn’t myself quote him in support of any philosophical argument. In fact, I would go further and say he is among the least ‘accessible’ of the philosopher-theologians who have graced the Catholic Church. He was, first and foremost, a theologian — something he saw as eminently practical — one who believed that faith and reason are reconcilable and that many routes lead to God:

A master of the memorable phrase, Bonaventure held that philosophy opens the mind to at least three different routes humans can take on their journey to God. Non-intellectual material creatures he conceived as shadows and vestiges (literally, footprints) of God, understood as the ultimate cause of a world philosophical reason can prove was created at a first moment in time. Intellectual creatures he conceived of as images and likenesses of God, the workings of the human mind and will leading us to God understood as illuminator of knowledge and donor of grace and virtue. The final route to God is the route of being, in which Bonaventure brought Anselm’s argument together with Aristotelian and Neoplatonic metaphysics to view God as the absolutely perfect being whose essence entails its existence, an absolutely simple being that causes all other, composite beings to exist.

So, why am I thinking about St Bonaventure on the day after the Church of England Synod voted in favour of women becoming bishops? Quite apart from the fact that today happens to be his feast day, I think it is an encouragement to those of us who see in the official response of the Catholic Church in England and Wales a certain sadness, a realisation that we are further apart on the road to visible ecclesial unity than we had hoped. We must continue to work and pray together, to build on the deeper understanding, friendship and mutual love we already have, yet at the same time not shy away from our theological differences. In the joy and delight felt by many of our Church of England friends, those theological differences may seem less substantial than they do to those of us who are Catholic or Orthodox.

People sometimes dismiss the old question, ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ as an absurdity, not seeing that, although we wouldn’t express it in quite the same way, it is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate question about the nature of corporeal and incorporeal existence. Theology and questions of ecclesiology are fundamental to the search for visible unity. Agreement on the nature of the episcopate is, from the Catholic (and I would think, Orthodox) perspective, essential. Yesterday presented us with another very great theological challenge.


Gaza, Israel and the Inadequacy of Human Responses

by Digitalnun on July 14, 2014

I have always believed in the value of brevity. The fine phrase, the purple passage, the adjectives rattling along in quick succession: they should all be deleted. Every word should count, even if that means some readers worry that I have not ‘covered the ground’ as I ought. Sometimes, there simply are no words at all. What is happening in Gaza now is unspeakable; so too is Hamas’s continuing rocket-fire into Israel. We can pray, we can fast, but most of the time all we can do is watch the tragedy unfolding. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of that. What is happening is not an Arab crisis or a Middle Eastern crisis, it is a humanitarian crisis — one in which we are all involved. Our helplessness, our inability to end the misery, is a painful reminder of the fact that we are not gods. We cannot bring about peace just by wishing it, nor by expecting the other person to make compromises or concessions. Peace can only be achieved by recognizing our own powerlessness and willing a change, even at the expense of appearing weak or foolish or both. Perhaps the real problem is that we don’t actually want to change. Let us pray that is not true of the people of Gaza and Israel.


Assisted Dying and Lord Carey’s Mistake

by Digitalnun on July 12, 2014

The Catholic Church is very clear about life-death matters. We do not have to take extraordinary means to preserve life, but we don’t have the right to end it because we judge it more compassionate to do so*. To put that in the most personal terms, when I reach the final stage of my illness, which will be painful and nasty, I suspect, there will be no need for the doctors to propose aggressive treatments to ensure poor Brother Ass, my body, goes on for a few days more. I hope there will be some pain relief medication to blunt the edge of the pain I feel; but, from the Catholic perspective, the important point is that God will decide when my life should end, just as he decided when it should begin. All very well for me, you may say, but what about those who don’t share my belief in God or the Catholic Church’s understanding of life-death questions? Isn’t Lord Carey proposing something infinitely kinder, more in keeping with the Christian message of love and hope? He has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in assisted suicide or euthanasia, so in backing Lord Falconer’s bill he is merely making it possible for people to take control of their lives in peculiarly difficult and painful circumstances.

My argument would be that Lord Falconer’s bill is deeply flawed. When one is ill oneself, one is very conscious of the burden one places on others. Any decent person would want to ease that burden, but opting for assisted dying is, I think, very questionable. One can be mentally capable of making decisions yet emotionally too vulnerable to make a rational decision. Again, it is striking that Lord Carey talks about the pain of watching someone one loves suffering — the onlooker’s pain, not the pain of the one actually sick or dying. In the West we don’t like seeing pain. We try to shut it out, eliminate it; but that is not what compassion is. Compassion is sharing the pain, accompanying the other through the valley of darkness and the shadow of death. That takes guts and faith in equal measure. We can protest that we don’t have such faith; that such courage is beyond us; but we won’t know until we try.

I would agree that not all suffering is necessarily redemptive. It certainly isn’t always noble or dignified. I have watched people die in terrible circumstances, but I still hold to the belief that as human beings we are more than the sum of our parts. Dying a good death means more than dying ‘easily’ or ‘comfortably’. For a Christian, or at any rate for this particular Christian, it means dying in union with Jesus Christ our Saviour, as and when he wills. Just as his death on the Cross was his last great act of surrender to the Father, so our own death will be the most important act of our life. I don’t want to fudge mine, do you?

•See, for example, the Declaration on Euthanasia here: http://www.euthanasia.com/vatican.html


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