by Digitalnun on May 1, 2016
Is today’s gospel reading (John 14.23-29) anything more than a nice little farewell speech from Jesus? Yes, there is the commission to keep his word, but don’t we customarily tend to get a lovely glow from that
Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you,
a peace the world cannot give,
this is my gift to you.
and gloss over the hard bits? The bits that tell us peace isn’t easy, cannot be be taken for granted, exists even in the midst of conflict and violence? The Benedictine device of the word pax, ‘peace’, surrounded by a crown of thorns is a powerful reminder not only that peace is Christ’s gift, but that the way to it is both protected by sacrifice and suffering and barred by pain and difficulty. It is, in truth, a very ambivalent sign.
The death of Fr Daniel Berrigan S.J. will have reminded those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War what an extraordinarly confused time that was. Peace activists sometimes gave the impression of not caring very much about the consequences of their actions. The cause was all in all, and it didn’t really matter if some people were hurt or even killed. I still can’t make up my mind whether that was the best way to oppose some of the enormities committed in Vietnam, but without that opposition, so the argument goes, there would have been even more death and destruction than there was. Much the same line of argument tends to be used today in support of everything from attacks on the pope to gender questions to whatever is the burning issue of the day. ‘I am right about this, and anyone who thinks differently is wrong. It therefore doesn’t matter how I treat them or what I say or do in support of my views.’
I think it matters very much. The peace of Christ is not something extra, something added on to our existence. It is fundamental — a peace, a blessedness, meant to inform our whole being and change the way in which we view everyone and everything. It is something we are to share with others, not just those we like or are in agreement with. At the heart of the biblical notion of peace is a sense of completeness. That can be a very challenging idea to grasp, but I think it boils down to this. Christ’s peace embraces the whole world. Does ours?
by Digitalnun on April 27, 2016
Sometimes, standing in a check-out queue, I have been tempted to murder the person in front — not because they are in front of me but because of the way in which they are treating the person at the till. Most people, most of the time, are polite; but there are those who seem to make it their business to be as rude and difficult as possible; and then there are the rest of us, who want to be polite, but who have occasional stunning lapses. Where, then, does courtesy come in, those manners fit for a royal court? I think Chesterton captured its essence when he said that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’. Politeness can be a mere exterior polish applied to our rough and ready selves but courtesy, real courtesy, must come from within. I like to think of it as a sacramental. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it is an outward expression of an inward grace. The opposite, alas, is also true. Rudeness shows only too well what is within. For a Benedictine, the ritualised courtesies of the cloister protect us from the grosser manifestations of selfishness, but unless they become internalised, so that they are a genuine expression of what is within, they do not rise above the level of a formal politesse. Even so, I don’t think they should be despised. After all, we don’t really want to live in a world where might is always right, and the young, the old, the frail and the vulnerable must go to the wall, do we?
by Digitalnun on April 25, 2016
I wonder whether St Mark, whose feast we celebrate today, ever stopped to think how his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ would be received. Did he weigh his words carefully, or did they simply tumble out in his enthusiasm for his subject? We can certainly see signs of redaction, and we all silently bless him for some of the little details, like the green grass on which the 5,000 sat to eat their loaves and fishes, but we shall probably never know how much art or artifice has gone into his gospel’s composition. We do know that if we look too long at the gospel’s construction, we may miss the message it contains. Similarly with Barack Obama and Boris Johnson. Their words provoked such squeals of protest over the week-end that we may be in danger of missing the message they wished to convey.
Take President Obama’s forthright remarks about British membership of the E.U. No one likes being told by a foreign Head of State what we should or should not do, but what he had to say was worth pondering. Dismissing his remarks as bullying is unfair and, I think, unhelpful. My American friends won’t like my saying this, but the tendency to give the benefit of their advice to others unsought is one of their characteristics. It is no good taking umbrage, because it is usually kindly meant. Personally, I find it endearing more often than I find it irritating. But President Obama struck a nerve because he touched on a sensitive topic which has not yet been properly debated. We have had plenty of opinion voiced, and various figures have been published, but we have not yet had time to weigh them and think through the consequences.
Boris Johnson’s reaction to President Obama’s remarks was typical of the man. His questioning of the President’s motivation and underlying prejudices was perfectly valid, but the way in which he expressed himself was definitely not. However, it would be as wrong to dismiss his underlying argument as it would Mr Obama’s. Those of us who will be voting in the E.U. Referendum do need to think about sovereignty, economics, immigration and so on and so forth. There is, however, one more thing we must consider: the common good, and the common good not only of our own nation state but of all the other nation states that make up the E.U. and, indeed, the whole world. The Long Ending of St Mark’s Gospel contains the command to proclaim the Good News to the whole of creation. Maybe today we could spend a few moments reflecting on how we understand that injunction in the light of our place in Europe and the world as a whole. Neither staying in, nor leaving, the E.U. is without profound moral and ethical consequences.
by Digitalnun on April 23, 2016
The solemnity of St George is shot through with ironies that only a very English sense of humour can appreciate. He is now our patron saint, as he is the patron saint of many other countries, but, despite our English love of tradition stretching back into the mists of history, has been our patron only since the mid-fourteenth century, following Edward III’s establishment of the Order of the Garter. Before that we celebrated St Edmund, King and Martyr (although the Normans were less enthusiastic as he reminded them of our Saxon kings).
According to legend, St George was Syrian on his mother’s side, Cappadocian on his father’s, and probably met his end in Syria itself; so as an emblem of Englishness, he is . . . not an obvious choice. As a saint of the Universal Church, a sign of that heavenly unity to which we aspire, he is a reminder of the larger world to which we belong. It is ironic, then, that some campaigning for Brexit have chosen to use the flag of St George as one of their key emblems.
Shakespeare, whose four hundredth anniversary of death we also celebrate today, has some fine phrases for St George, as he has fine phrases for almost everything, but his own protean character slips from English to universal and back again with maddening ease. He really is no help at all.
It seems we cannot distil the essence of Englishness from St George, Shakespeare, nor even the land itself — a land subject to wave after wave of immigration, change and alteration. It is a vain task and asks the wrong question, I think. It is not what ‘makes’ us English that matters but what we are and what we do that counts. There is an exquisite Responsory for St George’s Day Vespers in the Worcester Antiphoner which we sing every year. It is plainchant of the most lyrical expressiveness, born from the synagogue music of Our Lord’s time, shaped and pointed in the monasteries and court chapels of the Holy Roman Empire, composed here in England and sung to the glory of God and in gratitude for the witness of one of his martyrs, that unlikely soldier saint from Syria, in an obscure Herefordshire monastery. Something to ponder there, I suggest, as we think today about Syrian refugees, our place in Europe and what it means to be English.
by Digitalnun on April 22, 2016
Yesterday Quietnun and I were standing in an IKEA car-park looking at a heavy flat-pack we needed to load into the car when along came a very nice couple who offered to help. The awkward package was in the car in a jiffy. Bro Duncan PBGV immediately turned on his own peculiar brand of high-octane charm and we all parted the best of friends. Such instances of unexpected kindness are far from rare, but we often overlook them because we like to think we’d do the same in similar circumstances. As we get older, however, or illness saps our strength, or we simply find we lack the necessary skill or confidence to do something, our gratitude becomes the more profound because we know that, without the other’s help, we’d be in a very difficult situation. I often think of those who have helped me in unexpected ways and ask a blessing on them.
I was musing on this as the basis for a blog post when I encountered a couple of instances of anti-Catholic prejudice online. I was surprised because they came from fellow Christians, and because I had tended to assume that one good result from all the ecumenical endeavours of recent years was less hostility among the denominations. The fact that I was surprised is evidence that something has been achieved, but still, it made me think.
Spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity, like spontaneous reactions of unkindness or prejudice, are as much habit as anything else. We can, and should, cultivate what used to be called good habits, but most of the time we just don’t think: we act or speak, and there’s the rub. The kind couple we met yesterday saw our difficulty and unhesitatingly offered to help. They did not pass by on the other side, pretending not to see us (something we British are very good at), nor did they regard what they were doing as in any way unusual. They just acted, and I feel confident that they are as helpful to others. Similarly, I suspect my anti-Catholic friends are unaware of their prejudice and would be amazed if they were to be taxed with it.
In the monastery such unawareness is contrary to the close watch over the actions of our life that the Rule demands we keep (see RB 7). Our spontaneity must always proceed from good habit and delight in virtue. As such, it should always be positive, always help build others up. Today would be a good day for thinking about how we ourselves behave. It may not be physical help we are asked to give but a listening ear or a kind word, or even just a smile. The question is, do we?
by Digitalnun on April 19, 2016
How often do we feel tired? Yet we go on, do we not, getting up, going through the day’s routine, doing what we can and hoping, however vaguely, that tomorrow will be different, somehow better than today? That is what I call a necessary optimism. It is very closley linked to what monks and nuns mean by perseverance: the humble routine of life in the monastery faithfully followed day after day. To an outsider the monastic routine can look dull, even dispiriting; but it does its work. Little by little, both individual and community are transformed. Yet when we embrace that routine, when we are clothed in the habit or make profession of vows, the transformations wrought by grace are largely hidden from us. We make an act of faith in God and the community just as God and the community make an act of faith in us. Sometimes it is good to remember that God too is an optimist, always expecting the best of us and keeping faith in and with us even when — perhaps especially when — we have lost all faith in ourselves.