On the Edge of the World

Living in rural Herefordshire after living in Oxfordshire is a little like living on the edge of the world. Everything is different. Instead of chalk downland we have the red soil and oak-covered sweeps of the Golden Valley, with the ‘blue remembered hills’ of Shropshire to the north and the grey Marcher castles to the south and west. Instead of the bustle of Oxford and its honey-coloured stone, we have the quieter, more sedate streets of Hereford. Even the diocese is different in character, Cardiff being less populous than Portsmouth and Welsh rather than English. At times, one can feel quite ‘out’ of things, a mere spectator, no longer in demand as a speaker or interviewee on TV or radio — what one old nun, now dead, called ‘holy asparagus’ — but I must admit, it has its charms. At the heart of what I’ve called living on the edge of the world is a glorious paradox: to be closer to what genuinely matters because more distant from what does not.

To be on the edge, at the margin, is to experience a tremendous freedom. It is to understand what drove the prophets and the first monks and nuns into the desert. By disengaging from much that the world considers valuable or important, one can enter into a much deeper engagement with God; and one necessarily carries with one the pain and suffering and hopes of humanity. It is thus not only a tremendous freedom, it is also a tremendous privilege, one that monks and nuns are able to live every day of their lives. Those who have to worry about their families and their jobs may not find it so easy to live with such intensity, at least not all the time, but Lent gives us all an opportunity to ‘go to the edge’ as it were, and experience the desert for ourselves.

As we begin thinking about our preparations for Lent, may I suggest that we do not start with what we are going to give up? That puts the emphasis on us and often leads to confusion, e.g. fasting is not dieting, however much we would like our abandonment of some particular food to do good to our waistline! No, I think we have to start with the marginality of the desert, the place where Christ struggled with the demons and where we must learn to alter our focus. Before we even begin to think about what we shall give up, therefore, let us pray for our eyes to be opened to what needs to be changed in our lives and ask God’s help to do what is necessary. Lent is God’s gift to us. Let us use it as he intends.

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Not Speaking Out but Praying

Every day seems to bring further revelations of corruption, abuse or sheer incompetence, both within the Church and outside it. Collectively, we are suffering from an ever-mounting sense of impotence. What can we do about any of it? Even the three-day conference on the protection of minors scheduled to begin at the Vatican tomorrow is being greeted with low expectations. The truth is, whether we are talking about the abuse of power in the Catholic Church or unreal expectations of Brexit negotiations or anything else, the role of the ordinary person seems to be negligible. We simply don’t count.

I believe that is defeatist because it overlooks two very important points. The first is that we have to speak up for what we know, or at least believe, to be true. That can be lonely and difficult, but it is essential. Truth demands no less. The second is that we have to pray — and the prayer we make must engage the whole of our being. We must wrestle with God as Jacob did with the angel throughout the long night of doubt and fear. If we do not, we shall never see the dawn.

I myself feel I have no words left after the most recent allegations of abuse committed against deaf children in the Americas and cover-ups of abuse against religious sisters in Poland. That leaves me with prayer as my only option, so to say. Thank God one does not have to be important or clever or anything else in order to pray. One has only to want to be with God and do his will. Simple, really, for only God can save us from ourselves.

Virtual Vigil
We shall hold a Virtual Vigil tonight between 7.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. for the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Vatican’s meeting on the protection of minors. No set form of readings/prayers. Please join us in spirit if you can.

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From the Perspective of Eternity

Whenever the news is dire, as often seems the case at present, there is a great temptation to bury one’s head in the sand, muttering ‘This too will pass.’ Or we can remind ourselves that we remember very little of what happened on this day five years ago, unless it marked some great personal happiness or sorrow. The ability to forget can be a great mercy, but it is frequently a selective mercy. We forget; but do others? Burying our heads in the sand may be tempting, but can everyone do that?

Lent will soon be here and I shall be writing a few posts about how to prepare for it and, hopefully, allow it to transform us. An important element in that will be trying to hold in creative tension the everyday and the eternal. St Benedict urges us to ‘do now what may profit us for eternity’. In other words, we have to cultivate the ability to see that our ordinary, everyday actions have implications for hereafter. From the perspective of eternity, nothing is unimportant or irrelevant. Everything is charged with meaning. Put like that, we can see the necessity of prayer, scripture and the regular reception of the sacraments, of forgiving those who have hurt us and, even more important, seeking the forgiveness of those we ourselves have hurt. We may have forgotten, but the chances are that those we have wounded haven’t. May I suggest there is something there we need to think about and act on?

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The Four Woes

Reading today’s gospel (Luke 6.17, 20 – 26 ) reminded me how rarely we seem to advert to the less comfortable aspects of Jesus’ teaching — unless, alas, we want to point out the shortcomings of others. The Four Woes are a case in point. We lap up the Beatitudes but hearing that those enjoying wealth, abundance, a largely untroubled existence (laughter) and a good reputation are already having their reward is tough. Most of us living in the West are rich compared with those in the developing world. We have enough to eat; our problems are relatively small; and most of us would admit to an enviable existence for which we should give thanks more often than we grumble. But it is that repeated ‘Alas’ that troubles us. Not enough to make us change, perhaps, but certainly enough to make us feel less secure.

One of the greatest obstacles to holiness is not sin but mediocrity — the feeling that we’re basically all right, Jack, and have no need to overdo things. What if I were to say to you that being satisfied with the status quo, being complacent, is actually a temptation? It may not be sinful in itself but, as St Thomas remarked, there are things which, though not sinful in themselves, partake of the nature of sin and can easily lead to sin.

Today, as we listen to the gospel, it would be good to let it act as an examination of conscience. How far do we accept our shortcomings and moral failures as ‘just the way we are’? How often do we think about the way in which we use the gifts and resources given to us — not just material goods but health, happiness and everything that makes for what we regard as a worthwhile existence? I can assure you I am asking myself these questions this morning.

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It Won’t Go Away

The first email I opened yesterday was a questionnaire from the Conference of Religious with yet more information required for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and a slightly apologetic request for more donations towards legal costs. It was a powerful reminder that IICSA still has a lot of work to do, and those who keep hoping that the subject will somehow ‘go away’ are deluding themselves.

It can be difficult to know how to respond to those who simply condemn everyone with any kind of connection with Catholicism. It can be even harder to know how to respond to those who are more selective in their condemnations but who are (understandably in my view) inclined to be sceptical about the protestations of clergy and religious whose brethren have been found guilty of terrible sins and crimes. It is as though Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are now to be defined in terms of sexual abuse.

I think we need to reflect on that. In my experience, limited though that be, the popular conception of the Church is very far from my own. Where I see love and generosity, glimpses of the transcendent and a holiness that cannot be denied, others see weakness, self-indulgence and a quarrelsome hypocrisy. I am certainly not advocating any kind of PR exercise, but perhaps we should pay more attention to how others see us and try to learn from it. Every Christian, every Catholic, is called to win others to Christ and we cannot do that if we allow the popular narrative to predominate. We need, more than ever before, the grace of conversion. We must become what we claim we are called to be: icons of Christ in a world desperately in need of healing.

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Silver Surfers and the Church

Many years ago, when our community was something of a pioneer in its use of internet technologies — everything from videos to online conferences — we tended to assume that ‘the net’ was where we’d encounter young people; and, by and large, it was. As time has gone on, however, we have come to appreciate that there is another group the Church sometimes forgets: the so-called Silver Surfers. Although some older people still feel a little awkward when it comes to contemporary technology, there are many more who don’t; and they have both the money and the leisure to make the most of what the Church offers online. So what does the Church offer?

I think the only honest answer must be: a mixed bag. There are lots of blogs (of unequal value) and resource sites (likewise), plus livestreams of worship and news outlets. But is there anything of particular value to the older person, that speaks to the concerns we tend to have as we grow older? What would be helpful? I ask because we have a couple of new web sites waiting to be launched once our position vis-à-vis Cor Orans is clearer, but I realised yesterday that they need some re-writing precisely because we haven’t done a very good job of thinking about older users. I would welcome any thoughts you have on the subject, bearing in mind that ours are monastic sites rather than general purpose ones.

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On Being Sick

You might think that, with my personal history, I’d be a great fan of today’s feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, but I have to admit that I’m not. It isn’t that I don’t love Our Lady — I do — nor that I am indifferent to Lourdes, but somehow the shrine at Holywell fits better with my way of understanding things, and the Rule of St Benedict helps me further. St Benedict has a lot to say about the care of the sick and the reciprocity that should exist between carer and cared-for. I like the fact that he includes the wayward and the weak among those he thinks of as being in need of healing. It takes us away from too narrow a definition of sickness, and it prevents even the youngest and strongest among us from thinking of the sick as being everyone but themselves!

Over the week-end we received numerous requests for prayer for the sick, some of them heart-breaking. No matter how busy you are today, please spare a moment or two to pray for them. Pray as one of the sick yourself, and you will discover that you are being healed, too.

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Why I am a Catholic

Not, please note, why I am still a Catholic. That would need a different kind of post altogether. No, I am happy to say that at the heart of my faith is the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I believe everything the Catholic Church teaches about him to be true. That is why I am a Catholic and, please God, will remain a Catholic for the rest of my days.

Many readers will be disappointed by such an answer. They would really like a little bit of angst somewhere, or at the very least a stirring account of struggles with intellectual difficulties and existential doubt. I am not saying that faith comes more easily to me than it does to others, nor am I suggesting that I inhabit an untroubled upland where all is peace and light. The point is, nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare with the infinite truth and goodness of God. Once one has a sense of that, nothing less than God himself will do, and nothing less than God will one find. That is why I can identify with Walter Hilton’s pilgrim, who was determined to be at Jerusalem, no matter what terrors menaced him on the way, no matter how many wrong turns he made, no matter how uncongenial he found some of his companions (or how uncongenial they found him, understood).

Faith, for me, means keeping one’s gaze fixed on God, or rather, where one knows he will be found. Most of the time, of course, he is hidden from sight, which is why Benedict talks always about searching for God. But a glimpse of the true north is enough to set one’s course. Mistakes are made, alas, and one goes forward and backwards and wobbles along and gets stuck in all kinds of unprofitable situations. That is when grace steps in and puts right what one has managed to get wrong. It isn’t easy, and I think it gets harder as one goes on. Little by little, one is stripped of all the ‘comforts’ one formerly relied upon. The spell-binding liturgy of my youth is long gone; the churches are bleaker, emptier; the monastic world that has been my home for nearly forty years has changed beyond recognition. But, and it is an important but, God has not changed. He leads us deeper and deeper into the mystery of his being; and who could ask for more?

So, I am a Catholic, and glad and grateful for what I have been given. What I call the truth of Catholicism is something I experience daily, and it is a source of great joy. It is a pity that we tend to think of both truth and joy in largely negative terms — truth too often reduced to meaning an exposé of the latest criminality, joy nothing more than the absence of pain. A very little thought should convince us how wrong that is because truth and joy are ultimately a person, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he accompanies us wherever we are, including our darkest, most painful moments. So, I end where I began; but, thanks be to God, a little further along the way, I trust.

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The Abuse of Nuns and Sisters in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’s recent acknowledgement of the sexual abuse of female religious by Catholic clergy should have surprised no-one (see, for example, the account given here: https://is.gd/FoGNnU). I can remember our own D. Teresa Rodrigues, who was Secretary of Aide Inter-Monastique for many years, waxing wroth on the subject. It is one of those scandals everyone is aware of, professes to abhor but doesn’t actually do anything about because there is no reward for doing so. If male, it doesn’t advance one up the clerical career ladder; if female, it doesn’t endear one to one’s religious superiors and lays one open to all kinds of sanctions; if lay, one has more than enough to worry about with the terrible scandal of the sexual abuse of children. I think it’s worth pointing out, however, that although the pope directed our attention to sexual abuse, that is only one aspect of the matter — a manifestation of another and more general abuse. At the heart of it all is the low opinion the institutional Church has of nuns and sisters and women generally.

The patristic tradition and modern versions of it: motherhood
As soon as I say that, I know many will protest that the Church holds women in high honour. Some will point to the long patristic tradition honouring Mary, the greatest of all women. Others will quote more or less sugary texts telling us what wonderful beings we are and how privileged we are to serve in our maternal roles. There is my first problem: not the patristic tradition itself, but the shrunken version of it that we are often given, which sees all women through a single lens, that of mother. Not all women are mothers, just as not all men are fathers; but the Church has never sought to define all men in terms of fatherhood in the way she has often seemed to define all women in terms of motherhood.

Motherhood is a great vocation, make no mistake, but it can be reduced to a caricature of itself, to a kind of ‘flower-pot’ role in the life of others. My own mother summed this up rather crisply when she said, ‘Blame Mummy for everything that goes wrong, but don’t give her credit for anything that goes right!’ Fifty years on, and I feel the truth of her words more and more. It is (comparatively) easy to dismiss women as being somehow of less account, especially in a Church where priesthood and rulership are reserved to men. Most of the women who read this blog will have their own stories to tell of occasions when they encountered attempted put-downs or were dismissed unheard. A shrug and a smile and choosing which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t is probably the response most of us make most of the time. But I wonder whether we should be addressing another question that is becoming more and more urgent. Are the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church properly understood?

The rights and responsibilities of women: the exercise of power and authority
There was a time when arguments about the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church, whether religious or lay, were glossed over by reference to ‘cultural circumstances’. We were told that the future growth of the Church lay in Africa and Asia, where women were culturally subservient, and it would be wrong for the Church as a whole to upset this order of things. So, please would Western women shut up, say their prayers and do as the men said. I exaggerate, of course, but even the furthest regions of the Vatican must now be aware that society is changing fast, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa and Asia. With better education comes greater autonomy, which may be one reason why many absolutist regimes try to restrict access to education, especially for women and girls. Where women have a better grasp of their rights and responsibilities, it is impossible for the institutional Church to go on behaving as it always has. It must actually engage with women; and that can be very difficult for those who grew up in a different world or who have had no contact with women, other than as secretaries or servants, for most of their lives.

Of course, where the Church does not promote or even protect the rights and responsibilities of women, we end up with a paternalistic system which works well enough until it is placed under scrutiny, when it shows how very flawed it is. The exercise of power and authority will always be viewed with some suspicion by those who have no power themselves, but one must ask whether women in the Church need to be quite as invisible as they have become. Following the publication of Cor Orans, I have had to do quite a lot of work on canon law and I have found sobering the way in which female religious are regarded as being ‘disposable’ — their persons, their property, even their mission being subject to control by those who may have no first-hand experience of what they are dealing with. They are in some ways infantilized. This is very far from religious obedience, which should lead to a growing maturity in Christ. What has gone wrong? Do we take the easy way out, and blame the women themselves, or do we ask ourselves what in the structures of the Church could be responsible for bringing about such a situation?

A personal and tentative conclusion
I think myself that a reluctance to engage with women except on a top-down basis has led to a kind of blindness in the Church that is now disabling her more than ever. I don’t believe, for one moment, that popes, bishops and clergy set out to do women down or treat them with contempt; but I do think that unexamined attitudes have led to us getting further and further away from the gospel. The authoritarian exercise of power makes people concentrate on the power, not on what it is intended to bring about. I am not alone in thinking that the institutional Church has not yet really taken on board how serious is the sexual abuse scandal, and how inadequate appear the various measures suggested for its resolution. The reluctance to include women in the processes for examination of the problem is telling. It is a kind of ‘own goal’ for the Church.

We have to have law; we have to have regulations for large and complex organisations like the Catholic Church; but I am not convinced that we have to have the kind of laws and regulations we currently have. If one part of the Church has no voice — if it is always the part to which things are done, rather than engaged and participant — then there is bound to be a problem with how it is viewed. If female religious are basically of no account, then of course they can be treated as children. And the horror of it is, that we see exactly where failing to treat children as we should has led us all.

Postscript
I have deliberately distinguished between the institutional Church, for which I use the neutral ‘it’, and the Church as a whole for which I use the feminine ‘she’. It’s a crude distinction, but it is useful. As always, I don’t want my male readers, especially the clerical ones, to feel they are being blamed for the difficulties I discuss. They know how much they are loved and valued, and many share my sense of frustration with the way in which the Church appears to be failing to address important questions. I’ve tried to write for those who don’t have much history or canon law but who believe in the gospel and want to right the wrongs they see. As a Church, we preach peace and justice but without real justice within the Church, can there be genuine peace? Although I am writing about the exercise of power and authority, I am not writing about ordination which is theologically a much more nuanced question than many are prepared to admit. So, please, no ‘If only the Catholic Church would ordain women’ responses. That is not what is at issue here.

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Monday Morning Blues

It seems to be a feature of modern life that many people regard Monday morning with a slight inward shrinking if not downright distaste. Monday means a resumption of daily toil, obedience to timetables not of one’s own choosing and a mournful re-engagement with all that was left undone on Friday. In Britain at least, the weather is either much worse than it was on Sunday, thus adding to the general gloom, or infinitely better, compounding the sense of reluctance we feel. Yet Monday is really no worse than any other day of the week. The problem, surely, is that we cannot quite convince ourselves of that.

Neither St Benedict nor St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast this is, seems to offer much help. The Father of Western Monasticism continues serenely on his way, urging us to be on the alert for God in every situation, while the Doctor Angelicus invites us to concentrate on the reality of truth and virtue, subjects perhaps too abstract for those suffering from Monday Morning Blues. There are, however, two other titles given to St Thomas that are revealing. He is known as the Doctor Communis because for many centuries his status as theologian and philosopher was unrivalled in the Catholic Church; while Pope St John Paul II called him Doctor Humanitatis because of his sensitivity and openness to the value of all cultures. Perhaps we too need to cultivate a little more openness, not just to people but to the possibilities that this new day offers.

It may seem difficult, but Monday morning offers us all an opportunity we did not have before. We may be reluctant to admit that or too bound up in our own misery to open our eyes to it. There is no guilt in that, but maybe we could try a little exercise in alternative thinking and seeing which would give us a different perspective. Invert the colours on your computer display (which you can do via the accessibility feature) and you will discover that blue converts to a warm and welcoming orange. Perhaps that is the true colour of Monday morning.

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