Anti-German Sentiment

by Digitalnun on July 6, 2015

Like everyone else with an interest in financial and political matters, I have followed events in Greece with increasing concern. This isn’t the place to argue what should/should not be done. I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure that many of those who rush to comment don’t know, either. What I have become very conscious of, however, is the anti-German sentiment powering much of the Greek people’s opposition to the various bailout programmes proposed by the E.U. Die-hard opponents of Britain’s membership of the E.U. like to remind anyone who will listen of a certain German general’s prophecy at the end of World War II, to the effect that Germany might have lost that war but would win the economic one. Today, in Europe, there are many who feel that Germany dictates economic policy to other nation states. There may not be the same intensity of loathing that some in Greece have displayed recently, but still there is a fund of anti-German sentiment that is troubling.

Today is the anniversary of the beheading of St Thomas More. One way of dealing with opposition is to cut off its head, either literally, as in the case of More, or figuratively, as in the case of Greece and its likely exclusion from the Eurozone. It is much harder to weigh arguments and open oneself up to the possibility one may be wrong. No one outside Greece doubts the corruption and economic mismanagement that led to the present situation, but the solutions proposed hitherto may be too ‘north European’. Couldn’t part of the problem be that those of us who live in northern Europe expect everyone in southern Europe to think and behave as we do? Phrases like ‘austerity’,  ‘economic discipline’, ‘retrenchment and reform’ sound differently under southern skies. Maybe when we ask why Greeks can’t be more like Germans we’d do well to admit the long shadows cast by history and examine our own attitudes. Anti-German sentiment isn’t something that concerns Greece only. It is a thinly-disguised element in some of the debate about Britain’s membership of the E.U., too.

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A Little Saturday Morning Rant

by Digitalnun on July 4, 2015

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve barely been online. Yesterday, however, I had to do some work which reminded me forcibly that many apparently civilized people are now incapable of expressing any sentiment in English without using expletives. Before you smile an arch smile at monastic naivete, please take a moment to consider: I wasn’t always a nun, and most of my lay working life was spent in an almost exclusively male environment. I’m not shocked by swearing per se (although I do think it’s often rather repetitive and boring). I am more troubled by the laziness of thought it indicates, especially when it appears in written form.

English is a rich language with a large and expressive vocabulary. If one adds in all the loan words and expressions from other languages, it’s probably the richest and most expressive language on earth. Why, then, resort to a narrow range of adjectival cusses as though one were incapable of finding the mot juste? Of course, it may be that one is incapable of doing so; but if that is the case, why display one’s inadequacy publicly?

I’m tired of the constant stream of language that isn’t as colourful or vigorous as its perpetrators claim.  It’s just lazy and ugly. But I clothe my most damming indictment, not in the ‘decent obscurity of Latin’, but in the awful clarity and precision of French: Le style est l’homme même. Ouch!

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Taking It Easy by Bro Duncan PBGV

by Digitalnun on July 2, 2015

Bro Duncan PBGV lying in the shade

It’s hot, we all know that, and tempers tend to fly. Even They have had one or two little ‘monastics’ recently. I have two solutions to propose. One is to make oneself scarce whenever trouble looms. I’m rather good at that myself (see above). The other is to follow St Benedict’s advice and always, ALWAYS, make peace before the sun goes down (cf RB 4.73). He puts that particular Tool of Good Works just before he tells us never to despair of God’s mercy. I think that’s to emphasize how hard but necessary it is if we want to experience mercy ourselves. Taking it easy doesn’t just mean lying comfortably in the shade, although I’m rather fond of that myself. It also means being easy on others, too. Even Them. :)

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A Church Divided?

by Digitalnun on June 28, 2015

The Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul, which the Catholic Church in England and Wales celebrates today rather than on 29 June, was always, for me, a celebration of the unity in diversity of Catholicism. The Preface of the feast expresses this with beautiful economy, by comparing and contrasting the two ministries of Peter and Paul:

 . . . by your providence
the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul bring us joy:
Peter, foremost in confessing the faith,
Paul, its outstanding preacher,
Peter, who established the early Church from the remnant of Israel,
Paul, master and teacher of the Gentiles that you call.

And so, each in a different way
gathered together the one family of Christ;
and revered together throughout the world,
they share one Martyr’s crown.

Like Martha and Mary, Peter and Paul show us two aspects of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Both are necessary; both express something of the unity of the Church. Why, then, have I become less and less convinced that many who call themselves Catholic have any interest in maintaining the unity of the Church? Could it be because of the hate-filled rhetoric that distorts much public discourse and the extraordinary (as it seems to me) position of those who believe everyone, from the pope down, to be in serious error if they happen not to believe the same things that they do on any given subject? Only this week I have had to ‘unfriend’ one person on Facebook for making gravely defamatory accusations against Pope Francis while at the same time having to defend myself privately for not thinking exactly as another does on the subject of ‘assisted dying’. To one I am a liberal spawned in hell, to the other a reactionary bound for the same destination. The idea that someone might (a) be sincere in her opinions and (b) have come to whatever conclusions she has after years of prayer and study (which are on-going) is, apparently, irrelevant. Many others have experienced the same. I hold no particular brief for Fr James Martin SJ, but I was dismayed to read on Facebook some of the criticisms he has received, not to mention the terms in which they were expressed. There is more here than mere disagreement. There is a fundamental disregard for the Church herself.

One doesn’t need to know much Church history to know that theological disputes have often been attended with heated language and even physical violence (St Nicholas of Smyrna, for instance, allegedly punched the heresiarch Arius on the nose). But most disputes were conducted with a little more theological awareness than many display nowadays. There was a sense of the Church, of the importance of establishing what was true rather than assuming that truth was a weapon to batter others into submission. Perhaps I am guilty of idealising the past, but I think people were ready to die for their beliefs because they were also ready to live for them. In our comfortable existence in the West, we tend often to compartamentalise things, putting religion into its slot (a slot, moreover, defined by ourselves) and forgetting about it most of the time. Inevitably, therefore, because we have privatised religion, it seems to affect less and less of life. It has become an intruder, and as such, ‘the Church’ can be blamed for everything we dislike or disagree with: she says too much about some subjects; too little about others; and exactly what we don’t want to hear on some that touch us most nearly. The Church in such circumstances is always something other, something we either have no part in or, conversely, that we feel such a deep sense of ownership of, that we feel betrayed when she does not speak or act as we think she should.

What is wholly new, I think, is the way in which modern media, above all, blogs and Social Media, have given everyone the opportunity to voice his/her opinion, irrespective of their knowledge, understanding or commitment to Christian living. It is worth thinking about that in relation to our own lives. When I express opinions about the Church (such as this one), what am I hoping to achieve? What motivates me? It can be shocking to discover that one’s views on certain subjects have more to do with ‘I’d like it to be that way’ than with any real conviction of the truth of one’s viewpoint. I’d argue that I care about the unity of the Church and believe that thinking with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) is the only sure way to avoid devising some more or less loopy heresy of one’s own.

And that is the crux of the matter. Our western society places great value on freedom of choice, on personal autonomy and the like. They are undeniably great goods, but they are not necessarily the greatest or truest. Perhaps only a pedant like me would want to remember that the roots of the word ‘heresy’ are to be found in the Greek word ‘hairesis’, meaning ‘choice’. Today’s feast is a reminder that we should be careful what we choose.

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Pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well

by Digitalnun on June 26, 2015

Holywell6

 Man carrying a disabled companion: corbel at the shrine

Yesterday we made a pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well in Holywell, Flintshire. We set off early and were at the shrine as it opened. For half an hour or so we had the place to ourselves and, in the beautiful silence and peace one finds there, were able to pray for all sick and suffering people, especially those known to us and those who have asked our prayers. The worn stone, the bubbling spring, the heavy scent of flowers round about, the bright candles burning in the alcove, the crutches and ex votos of those who have found healing, these may remind the casual visitor of Lourdes, to which Holywell is often compared, but, for myself, I found the quiet charged with an intensity of prayer that can only come from centuries of being a holy place. To a Benedictine, it was somehow familiar, a homely place, in every sense of the word.

This corbel, showing a man carrying his disabled companion, expresses an important truth about praying for the sick. It is the privilege of those who are able to carry those who can no longer carry themselves; and it is the privilege of those who are carried to cherish and bless those who do the carrying. The sculptor has captured not only a moment of practical help but also a moment of great tenderness, as both carrier and carried are portrayed cheek to cheek, looking in the same direction. I think we can extend the meaning of that to cover many more situations. Christianity can never be an individualistic religion, concerned only with personal sanctification, as though we could become holy apart from everyone else. That hackneyed political phrase, ‘we are all in this together,’ takes on a new meaning when applied to the Christian vision of society. We stand united, looking in the same direction towards Christ, and we help one another along the road to salvation. Some may do the carrying, others may be carried, but we follow the same path and give glory to God by our journeying.

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Holy English Nuns?

by Digitalnun on June 23, 2015

In previous years I have written admiringly of St Etheldreda, St Leoba and their peers; and I make no secret of the fact that our community draws inspiration from some of the great Anglo-Saxon saints. This morning, however, when the sun is sparkling on the hedgerows and the cows over the way are contentedly nudging their calves, I thought we could have a little gentle fun.

Almost every day we receive vocation enquiries via our web site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk. We try to answer all of them as well as we can, although the majority are probably not meant for us as they show no sign of having any understanding of what Benedictines are, or the difference between being cloistered (enclosed) and active religious. A few do raise a smile, however, and remind me of some of the less-than-holy preoccupations of our Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

Pets and their accommodation trouble some. ‘I have five cats and two dogs, could I bring them with me?’ asked one. St Edith may have had her menagerie but here at Howton Grove Bro Duncan PBGV reigns supreme and brooks no rival, so the answer was ‘no’. ‘Can I go home for week-ends?’ asked another. The peregrinatio pro Christo idea was more Celtic than Roman, and although we find Chaucer’s prioress on the road to Canterbury, I don’t think the modern equivalent would be a five-day working week at the monastery and two days off at home. ‘Do you drink beer?’ asked one American enquirer. A rather cautious answer there, as most monasteries of women now offer tea or sometimes coffee rather than small beer as a morning beverage, with wine and cider for dinner on high days and holy days.

Personal hygiene and grooming also figure largely in some enquiries. One thinks of Coldingham, and the necklaces and combs affected by some, or Etheldreda at Ely fleeing from the use of hot baths. The brisk soap-and-water answer, that you’ll be expected to shower every day and wear what the monastery provides, is apparently insufficient. People want to know exactly what is or is not permissble. Enter and see, I advise, enter and see. We are living in the twenty-first century, not the eighth. As to leisure time (what leisure time, asked Quietnun), the questions come thick and fast, even though most of them have been answered in our FAQ. ‘Do you watch TV; can you play games online; would I have to give up my smartphone?’ I realise I am about a million years old when I note that in ten years of answering such enquiries, not one person has asked about books and the library — which is about as far from the Anglo-Saxons as we can get.

Smiling at these enquiries is all very well. I must admit they take up more of my time and energy than I want to give, but among all those seeking merely to satisfy their curiosity, there may be one person who is seeking the Lord but does not yet know how to put her quest into words. Sometimes the most unpromising enquiry can lead to  something deeper. It isn’t easy to judge; so I’ll go on doing my best, sometimes  disappointing people, sometimes prodding them into thinking more deeply, always urging them to more prayer. Please join me today in asking the prayers of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns for both our enquirers and the community here, that we may be graced with wisdom, charity and perseverance.

Senior moment: I wrote Lastingham, when I should have written Coldingham—now corrected, and I burn with shame.

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A Saint in the Family

by Digitalnun on June 22, 2015

I once asked a friend who is a direct descendant of a very famous person why she kept quiet about the matter. She gave me a straight look and muttered something about it being ‘rather a lot to live up to’. As we were drinking some very good champagne at the time (even in the Cambridge of the 1970s), and her distinguished forebear was, among other things, a fervent advocate of teetotalism, I saw her point. One wouldn’t want to be compared unfavourably or accused of not living up to his example. It is much the same for those with a saint in the family. It is a great honour, but often a challenging one. I was taught by a descendant of St Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret; joined a community founded, inter alia, by his great-great-grandaughter, Helen, later D. Gertrude More; and for many years lived in a house owned by the Eyston family, who are descended from the saint via Maria Teresa Metcalfe, who married Charles Eyston in 1814 (see here for genealogy). Sadly, I haven’t become holy by association; and when I think of all the Recusant families which found it convenient to conform during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I wonder whether we don’t try to flee the greatness of our ancestors. They were just too good for us.

Fisher and More challenge us today just as they challenged their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I summed it up in this way:

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation, . . . but I am left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated.

I think today we could ask the prayers of SS John Fisher and Thomas More to help us confront the difficult questions we face and work them out with integrity and courage. As saints, we can claim them as our own; they are indeed part of our spiritual family. But they are not just ‘nice to have around’. We live in a very different world from that of the Tudors, thank goodness, but still a world in which the prevailing ideas of society may conflict with the teaching of the Church. They do so under the appearance of good. Our present equality legislation, for example, has led to some questionable outcomes which many find troubling. Each of us must decide according to conscience — that interior sense of right and wrong — but we must ensure that our conscience is properly informed. That can often mean hard work, and laying aside some good for that which is better. Fisher and More ultimately gave up their own lives for the sake of life eternal. One can’t help being humbled by such courage and faith. May we be blessed with the same in our own day.

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Uncomfortable Questions about What it Means to Be Welcoming

by Digitalnun on June 20, 2015

Benedictines have a ‘thing’ about hospitality. The Rule encourages us to welcome all who come to the monastery tamquam Christus, as though they were Christ (RB 53.1). It is sometimes easier to do that online than it is in the flesh, because the computer or tablet can be switched off when we can give and take no more. The guest, alas, cannot. He/she must be allowed to ramble on and on, like the Tennysonian brook. The feast of St Alban, however, reminds us that the duty of hospitality may extend beyond just listening. While not yet baptized, Alban sheltered a Christian priest and gave his own life in exchange for his. The Proto-Martyr of Britain took hospitality to extreme lengths, you might say; but before we acknowledge his heroism and pass on, quietly relieved that no such demands are made on us today, let’s pause a moment. Sometimes we need the particular in order to think about the general.

During the past week the fate of two stowaways has shocked many in Britain. One was found dead on the roof of an office building in Richmond, having apparently fallen from an aircraft; another was discovered in the undercarriage of an aircraft that had flown from South Africa — an eleven-hour flight during which he would have had to endure temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius. Neither was, as far as we know, a refugee as the United Nations understands that term: both were economic migrants and, as such, likely to be returned to their country of origin if and when discovered. Their stories only made the headlines because of the circumstances in which they were found. Every week stowaways are discovered hiding in lorries or car boots and barely merit a small paragraph on the BBC web site or in the local newspaper. The words of Pope Francis in his recently published encyclical, Laudato Si, seem peculiarly apt:

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.
Laudato si, 25, emphasis mine

The thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life are putting a huge strain on their host countries. Some are indeed refugees, fleeing terror and persecution in their homeland. Others are economic migrants, like our aircraft stowaways. We use this rough-and-ready distinction to try to decide who can or cannot be admitted to our countries, but we are still left with the challenge of Pope Francis’ words. Can we claim to be civilized when we exclude from our society those we regard (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) as being a drain on it? Do we have a duty of hospitality in such circumstances and, if so, what, if any, limits should we impose? How do we reconcile the need to be fair to our own citizens with the desire to be welcoming to others, especially those who are vulnerable?

You won’t be surprised to know that I think Pope Francis’ encyclical worth studying in its entirety for what he says about this and many other subjects of common concern. He doesn’t have all the answers, but he does ask some uncomfortable questions we would all do well to consider. You can get a PDF of the text here.

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Sarcoma Awareness Week

by Digitalnun on June 18, 2015

Web_Golfball

I hesitate to blog on Sarcoma Awareness Week because I don’t want to become a cancer bore, but sarcoma isn’t much known about and the rarity and aggressiveness of this form of cancer means that many people are only diagnosed once the disease has spread and the ‘outcome’, as the medics cheerfully call it, is not exactly jolly.

There are about a hundred different types of sarcoma, but they fall into three main categories:

  • soft-tissue sarcomas
  • bone sarcomas
  • Gastro-intestinal stromal tumours (GIST)

They can appear almost anywhere, inside or outside the body. Approximately 3,800 new cases are diagnosed in the U.K. every year — they make up just 1% of all cancer diagnoses.

In a way, it is this rarity that makes diagnosis difficult in the first place. The admirable sarcoma.org.uk web site provides a lot of background information, including a diagnostic pack for G.P.s with information about Lumps, Bumps and Sarcomas. You can obtain one for your own G.P. by following this link: http://sarcoma.org.uk/Awareness/ontheball. Please do so, if you can. When I first went to the Churchill Hospital, the oncologist I saw remarked that all her patients had been diagnosed ‘inadvertently’, following treatment for some other condition. That happened to me, too, so I know what it is like to be told by a non-specialist surgeon, ‘I have some bad news, I’m afraid.’ It isn’t the best way to get one’s head round the idea of a life-threatening disease.

One of the most distressing aspects of sarcoma is the way in which it affects young people. Ewing’s sarcoma is the second most common type of bone tumour in children and adolescents. The overall five-year survival rate for Ewing’s sarcoma of the bone is 68%. For extraosseous tumours, the survival rate is lower at 58%. These are not just dismal statistics, they are human lives, with so much potential and hope. If you look at the sarcoma.org.uk site, you’ll see that there aren’t many specialist centres in the U.K. for the treatment of sarcoma, and research is necessarily constrained by cost/benefit considerations.

I consider myself very blessed to have been treated at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, and I’m grateful that, although my cancer cannot be cured, I’m still here to annoy you, months after we thought I might have ‘popped my clogs’. But I’m very conscious of those who are not so blessed: who are struggling with fear and pain and all the extra costs and challenges that cancer brings; who may not have supportive family and friends and who face an uncertain future with dread. Then there are all those involved in sarcoma care — think of the tiredness of family or friends acting as carers, doing their best in a difficult situation; the frustrations medical and nursing staff experience when they can’t help or have to watch their patients sicken and die; the going on, day after day, keeping hope alive, working for a better future.

Of course, it would be wonderful if you felt moved to donate towards sarcoma research. It would be even more wonderful if you were moved to find out more about sarcoma and spread the word, so to say. It would be most wonderful of all if you felt moved to pray for people affected by sarcoma, either as patients, carers or medical teams.

It is important to recognize that sarcoma is an illness like any other inasmuch as it doesn’t define those of us who have it. Sarcoma isn’t something we ‘battle’ or are ‘brave’ about. It is simply part of us, part of the normality of our everyday life. We live with it, knowing we’ll probably die from it (falling under ‘buses isn’t so popular nowadays) and have just got to get on with it as best we can, trying to keep as well as possible for as long as possible. I won’t pretend that sarcoma doesn’t make for some dark and lonely moments, but no one I’ve met with the disease has ever expressed anything but gratitude for the gift of life and the desire that others should be helped.

Sarcoma isn’t the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Losing hope or not caring about others is.

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Trial by Social Media

by Digitalnun on June 17, 2015

It isn’t difficult to see why great power and influence are attributed to Social Media. They are even better than the press at ripping reputations to shreds and mobilizing public opinion. Sometimes the power is used for good. How many charities have benefited from the free publicity Social Media can give, for example, or how many individuals have been able to find answers to questions that defeated Google? Unfortunately, we are also familiar with the trial by Social Media phenomenon. Sir Tim Hunt’s idiotic remarks and Rachel Dolezal’s curious self-delusion about her racial background would probably never have made much stir had it not been for the opportunities offered by Social Media. The essentially unpoliced nature of Twitter and Facebook, to name two of the most popular, means that not only were they discussed world-wide, they were also subject to some harsh judgments — and, in the case of Sir Tim, some amusing mickey-taking as well.

The problem with trial by Social Media is that most of us are not in possession of all the facts. We argue and express opinions without being properly informed but don’t follow through the logic of that limitation. It becomes dangerously easy to forget some basic principles of Christian conduct. Everyone has a right to their good name, for example. Imputing base motives or dishonest conduct to another is, if not proven, defamatory. Again, the instant, reactive nature of Social Media means that exchanges can sometimes be sharp, name-calling episodes that leave everyone feeling slightly grubby and the more vulnerable feeling wretched or afraid.

I am a believer in Social Media’s potential for good, but I am increasingly aware that they not only express public opinion but also help shape it. We have gone from seeing Twitter, for instance, as a brilliant way of having concise conversations with others to viewing it as having a role in society analogous to that of our political or judicial institutions. Vox populi, vox Twitterati. But Twitter isn’t God, nor are its users anything but a minority of the population. It is not a substitute for democracy, and the inflated claims we, its users, sometimes make for it are absurd.

I think the time has come for us to reflect more deeply about the role of Social Media in our lives. In the past, I’ve suggested guidelines for their use, but what I have in mind now is slightly different. We need to revisit our purpose in using Social Media and ask ourselves what, if anything, we hope to achieve — and whether we are the right people to achieve it. If we simply want an opportunity to ‘sound off’ to all and sundry about our personal likes and dislikes, we should think through the possible consequences for ourselves and others. If we want dialogue, or an opportunity to give encouragement or reach out to others, well and good; if we want a marketing opportunity, or a channel for some ideology, them, of course, Social Media offer opportunities for that, too. For most of us, most of the time, a more light-hearted approach is all we need. Even so, we must remember that though Social Media can be fun, there’s a deadly serious side as well. It’s the potential deadliness that worries me.

Note: on the subject of Rachel Dolezal, I have been struck by her desire to identify with those she sees as victims. On the language of victims and victimhood, this post may be relevant.

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