A few of you know how I have longed to be able to quote that phrase legitimately, and now I can — in part. When Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court Judge, told a stage 4 cancer patient that her life was ‘less valuable’ than that of others, I assume he was thinking of legal remedy: younger lives are valued more highly. Unfortunately for him, his remark, uttered in the context of a debate about lockdown restrictions (which he is known to oppose), gave the impression that he was talking more generally. Is one life more valuable than another? That is a very slippery slope down which to travel but there are many racing along it. The old, the sick, those born with physical or mental disabilities, people society rejects as dangerous or beyond redemption, we have cures for all these: abortion, euthanasia, judicial execution and some questionable forms of ‘drug therapy’ in between.
How refreshing, therefore, to begin re-reading chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict today, on The Tools of Good Works. The first tool Benedict lists is to love God. The second is not to commit murder (he knew his monks!). Today’s section ends with ‘To prefer nothing whatever to the love of Christ.’ I don’t think any of us could read that passage and come away with anything other than the conviction that whatever God has made is good and beautiful, even if their goodness and beauty is hidden from us. We know we shall never look at anyone God has not first looked at with love. Our human law may be an ass at times but the law of God cuts straight through to what really matters, our existence in Christ. You are valuable. I am valuable. And the scale on which our value is to be measured is not one we can compute.
A lot has been written about physical and mental health and the impact COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have had, and continue to have, on both. We are too deeply involved in the present crisis to be able to see with any real clarity the long-term consequences, but there is a general awareness that the prospects for many people have worsened. That is not just because delayed or cancelled treatment leads to poorer health outcomes but because lockdown, for example, has also meant poorer living conditions, loneliness and emotional stress, not to mention the mounting evidence of increased domestic violence and abuse. Add to that concerns over the impact on children and young people of the effect on their education and it is easy to see why many are worried about the future physical and mental health of the nation.
Spiritual Health in Time of COVID
Churches and other religious organizations have done their best to minister to the spiritual needs of their members. Some, like the Irish priest who devised an imaginative and truly pastoral response to the question of First Holy Communion, or the lay groups that have maintained a sense of community by keeping in touch via online and telephone meetings, have shown real creativity in their response to a complex situation. Others have settled for live-streamed worship, podcasts, vodcasts and experimented with other ways of reaching out to people as time, energy and resources permitted.
Moral Health in Time of COVID
What I am not sure many people, other than a few philosophers, have been thinking about is what I call our moral health. By that I mean how we, both as individuals and as a society, act ethically and with moral purpose in a confused and confusing situation such as a pandemic, and the consequences for us and our sense of right or wrong conduct. We have all read of instances of people behaving with courage and generosity, looking out for others and performing acts of unexpected kindness. We have also read of people behaving selfishly and putting others at risk. What are the principles at work here, and how far is the Government, the Churches or any other body responsible for setting the tone? Is the moral health of the nation to be identified with that of individuals, or does it have a larger existence?
Those familiar with Catholic Social Teaching will be able to guess to which side of that last question I myself lean. It does concern me when people say, ‘When everything gets back to normal, then I’ll do so and so.’ The situation we find ourselves in may not be familiar, but it is the current ‘normal’ and therefore precisely the one in which we must act as moral beings. How we apply injunctions to be truthful, charitable, generous, is therefore a matter of moment. I have a hunch that the privatisation of our lives — working from home, not travelling so much and having far less social contact with others outside our chosen spheres — has meant that most of us are living in a moral space less challenged by difference than it used to be. Here in this part of Herefordshire, for example, we rarely meet anyone who isn’t white or from a rural, probably local, background. I don’t think I’ve met anyone here who isn’t either a Christian of some sort or an agnostic or atheist. Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs belong to the wider world I used to know — they are not on my doorstep. Social media used to provide another window on the world, so to say, but recent changes in content moderation make one question whether that, too, is going to become even more of an ‘echo chamber’ for those of similar mind than it was. All this affects us, often more than we realise.
To take a concrete example. The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins on Monday, will present us with unique challenges this year. There can be no dutiful ‘shared worship’ of the type we held in the past, which let us off the hook of really engaging with one another. Our prayer and work for unity must be real, and working out how to do that is going to test all of us. We shall have to make choices, some of which will be hard; but they must be moral choices, that is to say, proceeding from principle and conviction. Some look to technology to provide a solution, perhaps forgetting that technology is a means to an end. How we use it matters. Why we use it matters. But it is what we actually do with it that matters most of all.
Hopefor our Moral Health
I am hopeful that our experience of pandemic will enable us to reflect on what we really value. I have said before that I hope it will lead to a deeper experience of God in prayer, to a fresh appreciation of family, friends and community and the many good things we encounter in our daily lives, plus a more profound sense of the interconnectedness of the world in which we live. I hope it will also lead to a strengthening of our moral health, our concern for one another, and our delight in trying to make things better for everyone. The world is not broken as it once was, but we may have failed to see how beautifully it has been repaired by the coming of Christ and the part we have to play in keeping its bonds strong. We tend to think of ourselves as clay, being moulded by the Potter. Maybe, just this once, we could identify with Christ himself, with that little line of gold purified in the furnace of experience and suffering but helping to hold together the vessel God has created, the world and everyone in it.
Today we begin re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel. I’ve often commented on it before but this morning I was struck by the fact that Benedict assumes goodwill in others. It seems obvious. Day to day, the monastic enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the community members. How else could it function? But when it comes to policy, to decisions about buildings or work or, whisper it gently, liturgy, there is more scope for less disinterested behaviour — I write as the survivor of many a chapter meeting where I had the feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed.
It is the apparently neutral ground, where we talk about one thing but seem to be busy about another, that makes the assumption of goodwill in others sometimes difficult. The bitter devisions in U.S.A. politics, the never-ending instances of incompetence and cronyism nearer home, are all rightly the subject of discussion and condemnation, but I wonder whether the situation would be as grave as it is were we able to assume goodwill in others.
Why are we reluctant to assume such goodwill? Is it that we fear to be thought naif? Or do we say, a little cynically, that we have been caught out before? As an outsider, I have found the presidential election in the U.S.A. and the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats baffling at times, never more so than when considering the behaviour of President Trump himself. An important element seems to be a reluctance to grant that it is possible for people to act in good faith in ways that we ourselves would not. That applies not just to politics but to most other areas of life as well.
Benedict reminds us that if we are to benefit from the wisdom and insights of others, we must be prepared to listen. Good ideas, good advice, can come from the most unlikely quarters. We may not like what we hear at first, so, like the abbot, we must think things over, give the matter time. But we start with that simplest and most difficult of acts: assuming goodwill in others.
A short post today, by way of contrast with yesterday’s. I have always had a soft spot for the saint we commemorate today, Hilary of Poitiers. His very name suggests cheerfulness, and though I daresay the Arians who suffered from his attempts to put them right were unenthusiastic about his efforts, Hilary has continued to be a beacon of sound learning and encouragement in the Church to the present. I think he was probably the best Latin writer of the fourth century (before Ambrose, that is). His daughter Abra became a sanctimonialis and is commonly regarded as a saint, while he did much to encourage Martin of Tours in his monastic enterprise; so, I owe him my gratitude. He endured exile graciously for the most part, and I can’t think of any instance of his blaming others for the difficulties he himself experienced. How different that is from our own times, when someone always has to be held responsible and made to pay — often literally.
Unfortunately, a desire for vengeance — which is what playing the blame game really is — does not always serve the purposes of justice. If one has not oneself suffered the injury another has experienced, it can seem wrong or unsympathetic to argue that the injured party should not be crying out for compensation of some kind. But perhaps that is what we have to do sometimes. Not every wrong can be put right by the payment of a wergild or the award of a sum of money, especially if demanded from those who have no connection with the original wrong-doing. I was thinking about this in the context of a number of recent claims against NHS hospital trusts and asking myself whether we have too easily assumed negligence when in actual fact a mistake has been made. We are all fallible, and I pity those who have to try to sort out the genuinely blame-worthy from those who are not. May they have the clarity of mind and warmth of heart of St Hilary himself.
Introduction People readily invoke the need for leadership, especially when things are going wrong or they feel the need to apportion blame; authority has a harder time making a case for itself. Leadership implies some sort of involvement in the choice of leader, so there has to be a measure of consent to being led, even if our personal choice fell on another. That is one of the basic principles of democracy: we agree that whoever won the majority of the electors’ votes forms the government. Authority, on the other hand, is conferred rather than chosen and the degree of consent to its working can be minimal. The hereditary monarch and the bishop are alike in this. We can leave the country or the Church, but we cannot alter the scope of the monarch’s or bishop’s authority. It is beyond our power.
The savvy reader may notice the influence of Walter Ullmann in this brief analysis. In my undergraduate days I sat at his feet and have always been fascinated by his ascending and descending themes of law and government. Francis Oakley’s subsequent attack on him has not lessened my enthusiasm for using Ullmann’s theses as an interpretative tool for the events of our own day.
Ullmann’s Ascending and Descending Themes Many of the medieval disputes Ullmann wrote about, and the rise of Fascism in the mid- twentieth century which sent millions to their death, had to do with questions of leadership and authority. Were medieval popes and emperors equal, or did they have distinct but complementary roles; and in any case, who decided the scope of each? Was Hitler’s popular mandate sufficient warrant for the crimes he subsequently committed — or were they not crimes at all, because he held a popular mandate? In Church and State today different models of leadership and authority are operative, but how do they interact? A democratically elected government derives its power and authority from the electorate, so the man or woman at the top is said to be actualising the will of the people — Ullmann’s ascending theme; but what happens when a government ceases to act within the confines of the law? Does Boris Johnson’s side-stepping of Parliament on some issues mean he has forfeited the right to be seen as a legitimate democratic authority and become a dictator?
The extraordinary events in Washington D.C. last week raise serious questions about the nature of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of President, Congress, Senate, and Judiciary. Access to social media and smartphones has transformed not only our awareness of what is happening but also our assessment of it. Each individual, by virtue of his/her choice of what to read or view, can now claim the ability to judge the rights and wrongs of highly complex situations we might never have known about in previous times. If this is a right, a freedom we claim, then it also comes with the responsibility to judge fairly and to take care how and when we exercise our right.
Religious authority, being derived from God, tends to fan out top/down, as in Ullmann’s descending theme, but very few, in the West at least, would say such authority was absolute, certainly not where Christianity is concerned. We recognize the power and (hopefully) respect the person we consider to have authority over us, but we prefer to talk about ‘leadership’ rather than give a blanket allegiance which may oblige us to an obedience we do not relish. The challenges to the authority of the pope and bishops (sometimes coming from the bishops themselves) are startling to those brought up in an older era of automatic deference. (The historian in me is not convinced the deference was ever quite as complete or automatic as some maintain, but let that pass.) There is definitely an air of ‘we the people’ when the discussion of some subjects comes up, and it has to be admitted that the official response of the Vatican or local hierarchy is often lacklustre. The abuse scandal would not be such a festering wound if the bishops, and a succession of popes, including Pope Francis, had been able to confront the reality of abuse honestly, humbly and compassionately from the beginning.
It is the same with questions of participation in the life of the Church. Many simply do not see that some of the provisions of Cor Orans, for instance, are insulting to women leading the monastic life, or that allowing religious brothers to vote at the Synod on the Family while initially refusing any like participation to women religious made nonsense of the argument that ‘rulership’ is the preserve of the priesthood. The latest change to canon law, admitting women to the ministries of acolyte and lector while denying the possibility of admission to the ordained orders of priest and deacon, probably also caused a few historians to raise their eyebrows. I shall discuss this in more detail below.
The point is, this is the situation we have and we must make the best of it. It helps, I think, that we are currently re-reading St Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot, (RB 2), and can trace there a nuanced and ultimately compelling account of what leadership can and should be, and what real authority looks like when it is placed at the service of others rather than used for personal gain. It also helps that we have four very different monastic saints to commemorate this week, and each of them can cast some light on the subject of leadership and authority. I am referring to Aelred (11 January), Benet Biscop (12 January) and Maurus and Placid (15 January). Anthony (17 January) is superseded by Sunday but would add another interesting dynamic if he were included.
Aelred of Rievaulx: the importance of example I haven’t been able to join in the ‘Our Aelred’ webinar organized under the auspices of English Heritage and others, so it may be that the participants will come away with a much keener appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses than is common. Aelred was undoubtedly a very charismatic figure, who inspired love and devotion in others. He could write like an angel, and the themes he was particularly drawn to — love and friendship — are attractive in every age. Under him, Rievaulx became home to a very large and disparate community which numbered some quite rough characters among them. Despite his suffering considerable ill-health, community numbers steadily increased during his lifetime. His beautiful Pastoral Prayer, part of which I myself say daily, is one that anyone with responsibility for others would do well to pray.
After Aelred’s death, cracks began to show. The community was never again quite as flourishing. It is not difficult to comprehend why. Personal magnetism, like grace, is not easily ‘institutionalised’. Initial fervour is rarely sustained indefinitely and Rievaulx was no exception.
I think that Aelred’s life is not easily understood by anyone who has not lived as a Cistercian him/herself. Asceticism and self-renunciation, not self-indulgence, were part of his routine, but they are alien concepts for many of us today. Many have forgotten — if they ever knew — how disciplined his life must have been, or they have speculated about his friendships or his sexuality without recognizing that such evidence as we have is ambiguous. Aelred himself was a monk first and foremost and might have thought our concerns irrelevant to his own purpose as abbot: bringing a community of monks and conversi to holiness. The Rule of St Benedict provided a model, as did the evolving interpretations of the Cistercians themselves, but his abbacy has his own individual stamp upon it and was by no means ‘text-book’ in every respect. His authority was not absolute, either. He was subject to the scrutiny of others and the decisions of General Chapter, but there was also the daily living in community, the accommodations to individual temperaments and circumstances about which St Benedict writes so eloquently. It was his business to rule by example — and what an example he must have set!
My first set of questions So, my first set of questions about leadership and authority is: where there is no example given, can there be leadership; and if there is no leadership, can there be authority? How would that apply to recent events in the UK or the USA?
Benet Biscop: the importance of taking advice Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He is sometimes dismissed as a seventh-century aesthete, but that is to ignore his physical and mental toughness. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, deemed the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible, is a product of the Jarrow scriptorium (it lacks the Book of Baruch, but that we may regard as a minor detail compared with what it does contain).
Contemporaries remarked on Benet’s patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united, and the attainment of unity requires much patient listening to others. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is recognized as someone who appreciated the wisdom of St Benedict. None of this would have been possible had he not had a gift for seeking out and taking advice. That suggests a humility leaders do not always show. He was certainly not wishy-washy. Bede describes him as being ‘full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.’ That kind of enthusiasm demands clear thinking and a readiness to sift the evidence, taking nothing for granted. I suppose a secular equivalent would be a government minister dutifully working through his despatch boxes or attending briefings, or an employer consulting employees about proposed changes to work schedules or company activities. An ecclesiastical equivalent might be consultation of the laity or any group particularly affected by a proposed decision.
My second set of questions So, my second set of questions about leadership and authority is: how far does the one who leads have a duty to inform him/herself before taking a decision? Is authority compromised when it is based on whim or personal preference rather than the greater good of the whole? How relevant is Catholic Social Teaching to the exercise of authority?
Maurus and Placid: the place of obedience I’ve included Maurus and Placid because they show us another side of the leadership/authority question: that of obedience. Many a Benedictine novice has chafed at the presentation of these two saints as exemplary disciples of St Benedict. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is quickly told. Placid, the youthful disciple, runs to the lake to fetch water and falls in. Benedict, aware of what has happened, orders the older Maurus to go and rescue him, so he sets out and walks on the water in obedience to his abbot’s command. There is a little subsequent disagreement about whether it is the obedience of Maurus or the prayers of the abbot that are responsible for saving the boy’s life, but the unhesitating obedience of Maurus is a model of obedience popular in the Church, even today, when we are assured many things have changed for the better. But have they? I’d argue that the role of the laity, women especially, is still ‘problematic’.
The announcement on Monday that women may now be admitted to the ministries of acolyte and lector was greeted by some as a wonderful advance. Women may now do canonically what they have been doing informally for some time: serve at the altar and read at the ambo. The trouble is, the historical memory involved in this view of things is rather truncated. Women were serving at the altar and reading at the ambo even before these were reserved to men as minor orders, and they have been doing so for some years since Vatican II and the greater use of the vernacular. In 1972 Paul VI designated them ministries, thus freeing them from identification with clerical status. Opening them to both men and women as a function of our common baptismal consecration can therefore be seen as an advance while at the same time firmly closing the door on the (re)admission of women to the diaconate — as Pope Francis did last year. But I think many women will see the change as too little too late, because it has to be viewed alongside some recent decisions quite at odds with it. I have already drawn attention to some of the provisions of Cor Orans which make it clear that nuns are not regarded as having the capacity to make decisions for themselves and are to be closely supervised. Perhaps that helps explain why men seem to be keener on this change in canon law than many women. It formalises and limits without necessarily changing anything more than the text of canon 230 § 1. Law is important, of course, but what is lawful does not always lead to action. In this case, it has directive but not compulsive force. What woman is going be an altar server or read at Mass if the priest objects? Isn’t that the rub?
Some object that in a global Church, cultural norms are challenged by the change. I think that is to disregard the fact that many effectively priestless communities have been kept going for years by lay men and women acting as catechists and adult formators. If I may use an analogy, the excitement expressed over the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President elect of the U.S.A. must have been greeted with a sense of déja-vu in India, Pakistan, Liberia, etc. and many other countries in the so-called ‘developing world’ that have already had a woman as Prime Minister or President. My own feeling is that the change in canon law will be used as a pretext to avoid bigger questions about the role of the laity, women especially. It will be interesting to see how the laity have worked to keep faith communities alive and flourishing during this time of pandemic through the way in which many have addressed the need for fellowship and service, not just worship.
My third set of questions So my third set of questions is this: how do leadership and authority in the Church combine, and are they reserved to men only (not necessarily priests: think about those religious brothers I mentioned earlier)? Is the obedience to be given by women fundamentally different from that to be given by men? Does this reflect the fullness of the Incarnation? Have the laity acted as leaders during the pandemic, not just supporting the clergy but acting to keep communities alive? What can we learn from this?
Conclusion I am conscious of not having dealt in detail with the historical arguments for some of the views I hold but that would require a much longer post, and this is already longer than many of my readers will bear. I think it important to stress that, while recognizing the imperfect nature of the present situation in both Church and State, the alternatives do not appeal. I remain, in the non-party-political sense, a liberal and a democrat and a loyal, if sometimes sorely tried — and doubtless, trying —, Catholic. What the future holds, who can say?
As we enter another COVID-19 lockdown in England and Scotland, we can feel the anguish and despair many are experiencing. In vain do we tell ourselves that there is hope on the horizon — if vaccines prove effective against the new strains of the virus now circulating. There is still that underlying fear of the unknown, that sense of the familiar being gone for ever. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that this is Lockdown 2.0. We learned a lot from our previous experience that we can now put into practice. We shall cope better. That is not just ‘pi in the sky’ assurance. It is a fact. We have learned a great deal about ourselves, our communities, our strengths and weaknesses, and have discovered a resilience and creativity we probably never knew we had.
Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. By this stage of their journey the Magi must have been tired, dusty, wondering whether they should give up; but they didn’t. They went on, following the star. God was with them, as he is with us. God is with us. That is the message of Christmas — and of lockdown — for today and always.
Over the Christmas period many people have contacted the monastery for different reasons. Some have wanted help with research; others have needed somewhere to stay; others again have asked prayers for themselves or those dear to them. Among those asking for prayer, the sick and those weary of life stand out. I can sympathize with them because I am myself tired of being ill, of having to struggle with simple, everyday tasks and the lowness of spirits that cancer and its treatment (or non-treatment) sometimes brings. But I do not think I would say I am tired of life. In that I am very fortunate. There are thousands of people who are having difficulty coping with the isolation and loneliness that COVID-19 brings. Not all experience clinical depression but many have heightened anxiety or are otherwise struggling. Today would be a good day for not putting off that telephone call, sending that email or somehow making contact with someone who may be in need. We advance the Kingdom by little steps — just as we prove our love in little things.
The popular slogan of our time ‘Be kind’ tends to irritate me, partly, I suspect, because those who utter it are sometimes anything but kind themselves or use it as a defence against any criticism of their own opinions or actions. Yet we all need kindness, perhaps never more so than as the New Year 2021 advances on its way with a pandemic still uncontrolled, wars, poverty and injustice still rife, and human hearts still unconverted. And perhaps the only way to real kindness is via an experience of compassion.
The meaning of kindness and compassion It helps, I think, to reflect on the origin of the words we use. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another — Old English cynd(e) gecynd(e) — and is closely linked to nature. We are naturally kind to those with whom we are united by blood — only, let’s be honest, sometimes we aren’t. That’s where compassion comes in. To feel with, to suffer with another — Latin compati — requires imagination and is a work of grace. That has nothing to do with natural relationships as such, but allows us to be kind to those with whom we have no natural affinity.
Being truly kind, being compassionate, requires more than vague feelings of benevolence or a few well-meaning words. It requires effort, a change of stance. Matt Collamer’s photo reminds me of the top-down attitude we often adopt towards those we try to help or ‘be kind to’. The photographer has come down to the level of the man holding the sign, and how different everything looks! The figures in the background are higher, distant, and, whether by accident or design, walking away from the subject. There is no connection between them and him. It is almost as if man with the sign has become an object rather than a person. Does that make you examine your conscience? It does me.
The challenge for us People often speak of our living in a broken world or one in need of healing. We tend to forget that it is up to us to mend the pieces and bind up the wounds. The fact that we feel we can do very little doesn’t mean that we can do nothing. We can be kind; we can be compassionate; and doing so will bring us closer to God than many of the other activities in which we engage. Ultimately, it is not how rich, powerful, learned, beautiful, admired, ‘right’ or anything else we are that matters, but how much we love God and others for his sake, who is all mercy and compassion.
I love the fact that just before we come to the end of the secular year we re-read chapter 72 of the Rule of St Benedict which describes the good zeal we, his followers, ought to have. I find it makes an excellent way of looking back over the past year and examining not just my own conscience (although that is principally what I try to do) but also scrutinising how we, as a community, have lived up to our calling. For the first time I’ve been tempted to add an assessment of how the State has acted because I don’t believe any of us with the right to vote can distance ourselves from what is done in our name, however much we may dislike or wish to repudiate what we regard as wrong, misguided or dishonourable. I say nothing of the Church because I long ago learned that questioning anything as a woman, especially a nun, often results in slap-downs or censures and I don’t want to over-react as I know I sometimes do.
Here is what St Benedict says about zeal, or you can listen to another translation in today’s podcast of the Rule: 1 Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, 2 so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. 3 This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: 4 They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Romans 12.10), 5 supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, 6 and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. 7 No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. 8 To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; 9 to God, loving fear; 10 to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. 11 Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, 12 and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.
Note that Benedict begins with bad zeal which separates from God and leads to hell. Most of us are familiar with that kind of zeal. We see it often enough in those who take a close interest in other people’s sins or use social media to express their rage or disgust. I fear we may see it in ourselves, too, if we dare to look at ourselves properly. We can pursue an argument in a way that is really pursuit of a person; we can use the gifts God has given us to belittle or discomfort another; we can even assume the high moral ground as a way of insulating ourselves from the consequences of our own actions. Are you beginning to feel uncomfortable? I hope you are, because I am.
So let’s move on quickly to the characteristics of good zeal. For most of us the sins of omission far outnumber the acts of deliberate cruelty or wickedness, and reading through Benedict’s list of the qualities we need to exercise, I am acutely conscious of missed opportunities. As an individual, as a community, as a country, I know we can do better than we have. Fervent love in the practice of virtue, respect, patience, doing what is better for another, being supportive, these are generous qualities, they are also civilized and humane qualities. Looking back on the past year I can see both where we have succeeded and where we have failed. I am no great fan of New Year resolutions, but I’ll be making a general intention of trying to do better, and I know the community will, too. It is, after all, the commitment we renew every day with our vow of conversatio morum. I take heart from the fact that this short chapter of the Rule ends with a prayer. We can do better; we can be better. It is, in the end, a joint enterprise that leads us to heaven. Thank God for that.
Go into any monastery today and I wager you’ll find monks or nuns in various stages of happy exhaustion. The liturgies of the great feasts don’t just happen, any more than the festive meals in the refectory. Christmas requires effort, no matter how low-key our celebration, and we have twelve days of it in which to go on making more effort, not to mention the last ‘look-back’ at Candlemas. I’m sure most lay people can identify with this in their own way. But there is one aspect of the monastic Christmas that impresses me more and more as each year passes and it may not be so easily found outside the cloister: silence. Yes, we sing our hearts out in choir; and yes, we do relax the rule of silence on Christmas Day itself to engage in friendly community chatter, but in between times there is a rich, joyful silence that is very far from being emptiness. When the Divine Word takes flesh and appears among us, our human words fall away. Only silence can begin to comprehend the mystery. It forces us to our knees, loses us in wonder and adoration. Christ is born on earth and we dance with the angels for very joy (St Basil). If we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance inwardly. Rejoice!
CHRISTMAS BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL