The Gentleness of Christ

I love Dante’s characterisation of St Luke, whose feastday it is, as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, scribe of the gentleness of Christ. Gentleness isn’t a quality that gets a very good press these days. We seem to admire more those who are loud in their own praise, the doers of deals, the ‘strong men’ of the Kremlin and the White House. Those who do value gentleness are often considered to be milksops, people who exalt weakness because they are incapable of strength. What a topsy-turvy way of looking at things! Only the truly strong and brave know how to be gentle, because to be gentle is to admit the truth of any and every situation and meet it with dignity and resilience. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the gentle man par excellence; the one who, in Julian’s words, ‘was never wroth’ but looked upon our sins with the eye of mercy, even as he hung upon the cross to die for us.

Can we emulate such gentleness in our own lives? The English origins of the word suggest nobility, and we would all like to be noble; but there is something more if we look at the Latin gentilis from which our English word comes. Gentilis literally means belonging to the same clan or gens; so to be gentle is to be of the same family, the same blood or, as we might say today, one with the other. I think that if we look at the life of Christ, especially as portrayed by St Luke, we can see immediately how closely Jesus identified with others. His courtesy towards women, his patience with his disciples even when they were jockeying for position, these spring from an understanding and human sympathy that we can try to cultivate. To be gentle with others is not to say ‘anything goes’ or allow others to trample us at will. It is to find in Christ the courage and strength we need to meet everyone and everything with the same compassion and generosity of spirit — to be, in other words, channels of his love and grace to the world.

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Trying to Stay Positive

Most of us have experience of trying to stay positive when everything seems to be negative. The weather’s ‘wrong’; our job’s ‘wrong’; people around us are ‘wrong’. Everywhere we look we see division, squabbles, blistering rows and the most heartless violence. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain upbeat. Often it looks to others and to ourselves like foolishness or a flight from reality. Our determination to hold to our course is interpreted as stubbornness, our refusal to give in to lowness of spirits is a mere pose. Or is it?

One of the things I have learned from having metastatic leiomyosarcoma is that many of our reactions to people and events are affected by matters beyond our control. The various drugs I have to take affect my mind as well as my body. Steroids make me peppery; the anti-emetics make me tired and depressed; the chemotherapy drug itself can reduce me to a little heap of negativity quite unlike my usual self. But — and it is, as always, an important ‘but’ — there is something else at work, something that, until now at least, has always got me through. It is grace, but not necessarily grace as usually portrayed. I have no doubt that the prayers of all praying for me play a huge part in keeping me going, but there is also an element of choice. I have to choose to keep going, and I honestly don’t know where the power for that comes from. I assume it is grace, an unmerited gift of God, but I don’t assume that it will always be there or that I’ll always respond. That is not to doubt God. On the contrary, it is to assert the glorious freedom of God and our own free will and to recognize that what is possible to one person at one time may not be to another at another time. I have, so far, been able to choose to go on; others, alas, have not.

What of those who can’t go on, who are too tired/ill/broken in spirit to make choices or stay positive? We are often severe on them without meaning to be. We avoid X because he is always down in the dumps; we think Y would do a lot better if she didn’t keep harping on about what’s wrong with her life. Either way, we tend to judge them wanting because they do not conform to our idea of the brave cancer patient/the doughty battler against all odds we would like them to be (fill in as appropriate). We do not stop to ask ourselves why they should conform to our expectations in the first place, and are sometimes very grudging in our assessment of what they are struggling to cope with.

There is a sentence in the Rule of St Benedict that is well worth pondering in this context: ‘Let them bear with the greatest patience one another’s infirmities, whether of body or character.’ (RB 72. 5) Body or character . . . there’s the rub. We frequently mistake the one for the other, but that doesn’t mean we can make distinctions, saying this person is worthy of our compassion and that person isn’t. We are asked to bear with every kind of weakness with the greatest patience, and I think that stands the whole concept of staying positive on its head.  The emphasis is not so much on the one trying to stay positive as on those who have any kind of dealings with him/her. So, the person locked in clinical depression, the one who feels he/she cannot go on, the person overwhelmed by sickness or sorrow, it is not for them to feel guilty because they cannot be positive, it is for us who know them or come into contact with them to stay positive; and I suspect we can only do that by grace. In the end, it all comes down to grace, doesn’t it?

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The Need for Co-Operation

This could be called a political post, but it is not a party political post. The distinction is important because there are those who argue that the Church (meaning usually clergy and religious) should never express any opinion, either as individuals or as an organization, about the way in which society functions, the laws that govern it or the values it seeks to express. I don’t subscribe to that view for the simple reason that the Church (which is more than just clergy and religious) is concerned with life on earth as much as life hereafter. Those familiar with the political thought of St Thomas Aquinas know that he called the state societas christiana. In other words, the fundamental relationship between citizens is meant to be what is implied by the word ‘society’ — friendly, companionable, mutually beneficial. Sadly, I’m not sure we can say that British society reflects that; we definitely cannot assert it of international relations.

You do not need me to list all the matters that contribute to widespread unease about where we are going either as a country or as a world. Different factors affect us in different degree, according to our personal experience or feelings of vulnerability, and there are a host of proposed solutions vying for our attention. I think, however, one need stands out above all others: the need for co-operation. At a time when many are pursuing ‘go it alone’ policies, it is increasingly clear that we cannot actually do that. We cannot solve the problem of climate change without action on a global scale. We cannot maintain the economic structures of America and Europe without reference to Asia or Africa. Perhaps most important of all, we cannot retain our own humanity without acknowledging and valuing the humanity of others.

This morning, as I glanced at the BBC headlines, I was struck by how much pain and suffering is caused by our wanting to dominate rather than co-operate. Those who live in community know how hard it can be to co-operate with others, but is there really any alternative? Do we want a world in which a few grab all there is to grab and the rest are condemned to a form of slavery? Don’t we want to live as friends to each other, despite our differences? That is not a mere rhetorical question. It is one we must ask ourselves every day because the answer we give will determine our conduct and the shape of the society — remember that word! — in which we live. For Christians, it also has an eschatalogical dimension: it should make us uncomfortable; it should make us act.

I began with Aristotle, mediated by Aquinas, but I’ll end with Plato: ‘it is no mean topic that engages us, for our subject is, how we should order our life.’ (Republic, 352.D)

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When Love Grows Cold

St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila

Hardly a phrase one would associate with St Teresa of Avila, is it? But if one looks at the divisions in the Church, the sorry state of British politics or the sheer ugliness of much of which passes as ‘international relations’, one could surely be forgiven for thinking we have all gone mad. But it is more than that. I think, quite simply, we have forgotten how to love. We are all too busy pressing our own agenda — often, let it be said, an apparently good and worthwhile agenda — to notice that the well-spring of our actions isn’t, as we would like to think, love, but something much closer to selfishness. We are not good at self-knowledge and tend to hide the truth from ourselves. ‘The lie in the soul is a true lie’ is utter nonsense. A lie is a lie is a lie. So, is there a remedy? I think there is, and one of which St Teresa is herself a great exponent: prayer.

People often ask what prayer is (which makes a nice change from those anxious to tell me what prayer is) as though it were some strange activity in which one may occasionally indulge, but only as a last resort. My answer, that prayer is allowing God to love us and loving him in return often seems to disappoint. It is like Naaman being told to bathe in the Jordan to heal his leprosy — too simple, too easy. I smile a little smile at such times and think, ‘You try it, and you’ll soon see!’ For, of course, to pray perseveringly, day in, day out, not just when the mood seizes or when one feels the need, is a form of asceticism, properly understood — and how few are willing to submit to such a discipline!

Most of us are quite good at recognizing what is wrong with the world and we take to Social Media or blogging to share our insights (criticisms) with others. I wonder how many of us take to our knees instead or as well? St Teresa’s great work for her Order and for the Church rested upon her largely unseen life of prayer. We read her letters or pore over The Interior Castle and think how wonderful she was and how attractive the way in which she teaches us to pray, but at five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning or after a hard day at work, the enthusiasm drains away, and who can blame us?

Today’s challenge, therefore , is simultaneously hard and easy: it is to resolve, yet again, to make time for prayer and stick to it — not prayer as endless petitions; not prayer as flowery phrases or telling God what he already knows; but prayer as allowing God to love us and loving him in return. The prayer of love and silence comes to us as sheer gift but it transforms life because it leads to Life himself.

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New Saints, Old Gospels

Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980
Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980

At some time in their life, I imagine every religious has heard today’s gospel (Mark 10.17–30) addressed to themselves. To give up everything for Christ, including the intellectual and cultural riches that often form an even greater barrier to discipleship than the material ones, sounds wonderful. After all, it led Antony into the desert. Where might it lead us? But stop there for a moment. Much of the gospel is not about renunciation as such, it is about the difficulty of entering the Kingdom, of living virtuously, of being totally dependent on God who so often seems to hide himself or who behaves in ways we find inexplicable. The God of the poor and oppressed whom we invoke daily in the Magnificat is sometimes a difficult God to trust. The poor we have always with us, indeed, and their sufferings do not diminish.

Bl. Oscar Romero, who is to be canonised today, was not always the champion of the poor and oppressed he became. That he did become such a champion, that he pleaded with President Jimmy Carter not to arm the brutal Salvadoran security forces and that, ultimately, he was shot dead as he celebrated Mass, is a powerful witness to the miracles grace can achieve. Here in England we have our own history of martyred archbishops, but their deaths often seem far away and long ago. We do not connect them with the words of today’s gospel in the way that we can connect the archbishop of El Salvador. Because the truth I find arresting about Oscar Romero is this: he gave up everything for Christ, including life itself, not in an act of brave defiance but quietly, prayerfully, his gaze fixed on the Lord. The burning words of the homily he gave the day before were not on his lips as he died but the ancient words of the Church’s liturgy. The personal was subsumed into something much larger, much greater. If we forget that, I think we fail to do justice to the man. He was not ‘just’ a thorn in the side of the Salvadoran establishment, not ‘just’ what we would call an activist. He was someone who had given his whole life to Christ. Jesus had looked at him and loved him; and he returned the gaze.

Today we rejoice in the new saints the Church is adding to the calendar. Let us learn from them and ask their prayers. As we do so, perhaps we could spend a few minutes re-reading today’s gospel and asking ourselves what it demands of us, here and now. It is no good admiring saints like Oscar Romero from afar and thinking that is all we need to do. We may not be able to emulate their heroic gift of self, but surely we can try to rid our hearts of hatred, bitterness, and the selfishness that destroys others as well as ourselves.

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A Lesson from the Neanderthals

Most, if not all, of us have a dollop of Neanderthal DNA in our make-up. Gradually we are learning that Neanderthals were not the brutal beings we once thought they were, though they must clearly have been bold and handy with a spear to have survived for 200,000 years. They were capable of art, which means they must have been capable of thought and reflection. More tellingly, recent archaeological studies have revealed that they were capable of compassion and care of the sick. Most Neanderthal bones show signs of injury, some quite serious. A recent find indicates that one man with a withered arm and broken leg survived for about ten years after being hurt. Someone must have cared for him. The BBC reporter announcing this called it evidence of compassion. I think I would go further and simply call it ‘love’. The Neanderthals interbred with homo sapiens. Their legacy to us is still being worked out but I’d say that their being compassionate and caring for the weak, of loving those who were physically unable to contribute much to the hard life the Neanderthals lived, is a lesson we could all do with learning, wouldn’t you?

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Getting a Grip the Benedictine Way

I like the fact that we finish reading St Benedict’s fourth step of humility on the feastday of Blessed Columba Marmion (if you don’t know about him, look him up; better still, try reading him). Marmion was one of the greatest Benedictines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but he was far from being a universal favourite. Indeed, on his profession day, his abbot allegedly dismissed him saying, ‘I am very sorry you have been professed.’ I can’t imagine anything more cruel on such an occasion, but Marmion bore it humbly and gently; and that is the point.

All of us have to deal with contradiction in our lives, if not downright injustice. Most of us usually manage to do so without resorting to fisticuffs, though we may have to admit to a yelp of pain or cry of fury. At national or international level, the resort to fisticuffs sometimes comes quite early, but it is usually preceded by some name-calling and self-conscious parading of innocence. You do not need me to cite instances in the news at present. The trouble is, unresolved disputes, attempts to make others pay, inflicting humiliation all leave a toxic legacy. It is a truism to assert that the seeds of World War II were sown in the humiliation inflicted on Germany after World War I. We can look at what is happening in Europe today, or across the Atlantic to the pronouncements emanating from the White House, and shiver. The world as we know it is changing faster than ever: the promotion of ‘me first’ ideologies and the stifling of dissent and the free expression of opinion that does not correspond to current norms (e.g. the exclusion of Life and similar pro-life agencies from U.K. Freshers’ fairs. while allowing pro-abortion societies) should give even the most ostrich-like of us a moment’s pause.

So, what has Benedict to say? I don’t want to repeat all I’ve said in earlier posts on the subject (e.g. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/10/03/costing-not-less-than-everything-the-fourth-step-of-humility/), but I think the final sentence of the fourth step of humility is worth repeating. ‘With the apostle Paul they bear with false brethren and bless those that curse them.’ RB 7.43) That is not humility of the Uriah Heep kind; it is not opting out of conflict or confrontation by downplaying our own values or principles. Rather, it is to engage at the deepest possible level but to do so with restraint and courtesy, refusing to demonise our opponent or make negative assumptions about them. It is quite incredibly hard to do when our temper is roused or we feel an injustice keenly. That reminder about blessing, however, is very much to the point. If we can bless someone; if we can ask God for nothing but good for them and do so without half an eye on ourselves and how good we are being, we are allowing grace an opportunity to transform the situation.

Benedict’s fourth step of humility leaves no room for complacency or self-congratulation. It is searing in its demands. His way of getting a grip on ourselves and on situations that could easily get out of hand is definitely not for wimps. Perhaps that is why it is not popular. The easy way out, the ‘might is right’ formula, will always be seductive; but it may not lead to happiness or well-being.

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Universal and Local: Being Catholic in England

Sometimes being a Catholic in England can feel a little weird. We may belong to the largest Church in the world, but here we are a minority. Occasionally we may be reminded of that fact in no uncertain terms. We are not part of the Establishment, and although we have a few ‘old families’ among our number, many assume that if we have a British surname we are of Irish extraction. If our surname is Italian or Polish, that merely confirms the suspicion of our being alien! Our churches, by and large, reflect their origins as Mass centres, built to house the largest number of people as cheaply as possible. When people do come across architectural gems or learned clergy or religious, it seems to surprise them. Catholicism is still often thought of in terms of repository art, overbearing and ill-educated clergy and, sadly nowadays, the abuse of children. Catholic laity seem not to be thought of at all, unless it be in connection with protests outside abortion clinics or attempts to raise awareness of creeping euthanasia policies and such-like. Personally, I think the fact that Catholic laity are so identified with pro-life advocacy is one of the glories of the Church; so, too, is the fact that one rarely goes into a Catholic church and does not see someone praying quietly in a corner. We may not articulate our faith with the clarity and precision of the professional theologian, but we do our best to live it. Part and parcel of that faith is our low-key devotion to the saints.

Today the Universal Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels (see earlier posts, eg https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/10/02/are-guardian-angels-redundant/) but here in Herefordshire we celebrate the feast of St Thomas de Cantilupe, also known as St Thomas of Hereford, our local saint and, happily, one whom Christians of all denominations can look to as he lived and died before the Reformation. That highlights for me an important aspect of Catholicism. Being part of the Universal Church does not do away with the local and particular. Thomas was what might be called today a Buckinghamshire boy who made good: educated at Oxford, Paris, and Orleans, he taught canon law at Oxford, becoming Chancellor of the University in 1261. His subsequent career is best described as ‘varied’. There were times when he found it opportune to spend a little time abroad. He sided with Simon de Montfort and the baronial party which was slightly awkward as he was Chancellor of England at the time. When he became bishop of Hereford (a duty he seems to have fulfilled with zeal and devotion), he clashed with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, and was excommunicated. Thomas went to Rome to resolve the matter and died near Orvieto in 1282. His body was brought back to Hereford for burial and in 1320 he was canonised. Today, one can go and kneel at his shrine in the cathedral and pray before a small relic of the saint given by the archbishop of Westminster. Thomas will be remembered in the Office and in the Mass, but it will be without fanfare or exuberance because he is one of us. He is not merely the Buckinghamshire boy made good; he is the ordinary English Catholic made good — what we all hope to become. May his prayers and the prayers of our Holy Guardian Angels assist us.

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Of Colds and Cantankerousness

No one likes having a cold. If one is immuno-suppressant, a cold can turn into something really nasty depressingly quickly, so one makes one’s misery plain to keep others at bay. In any case, a cold seems to justify being just a teeny-weeny bit cantankerous, doesn’t it? I myself take full advantage of the privilege thus afforded. I gloomily admit I am too tired to do what I ought and try not to think of all that is mounting up on the to-do list. Bro Dyfrig BFdeB’s share of a mid-morning biscuit is reduced in size from a companionable half to a mean morsel no bigger than a thumbnail. Meals are ‘simplified’ to dullness. The Divine Office is muttered in private. Bed-time comes early.

The trouble is, the world goes on as it always has; and while one weeps for the sufferings of those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia or the acutely painful Senate hearing in the U.S.A., one’s overwhelming desire is to avoid trouble, confrontation, anything that detracts from concentration on one’s own woe. With a cold one’s whole existence shrinks to present pain and exhaustion and poor, poor me. Which may possibly be why most of us get colds, at least occasionally. It is only when one has plumbed the depths of one’s own preoccupation with self that one can recognize how easy it is to pass from being a kind, generous person, genuinely interested in others, to a selfish, crotchety so-and-so that no one (apart from God and the dog) wishes to spend time with.

Let’s pause there for a moment. The two exceptions I mention, God and the dog, are worth thinking about. What do they see in us when we are at our least attractive that makes them brave our churlishness and irritability? Clearly, they accept us as we are. I think they must see something we tend to overlook, both in ourselves and in other people: the mystery of grace, our being ‘immortal diamond’, someone infinitely loveable. That is humbling in the best sense — and something to remember when we have a cold.*

*My own cold seems to be getting better so I should be able to have my delayed chemotherapy on Thursday, 4 October, D.V..

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St Michael and All Angels 2018

St Michael's victory over the Devil by Sir Jacob Epstein, Coventry Cathedral
Jacob Epstein’s representation of St Michael, Coventry Cathedral
Whenever a human being encounters an angel, the first words spoken by the angel are always ‘Fear not!’ or some such phrase. Angels are not the chubby putti beloved of renascence artists and sentimental Christmas cards, they are mighty spirits, messengers of God. Fire and flame attend them; they are truly awful, and the role they play in the economy of salvation is awful, too.

‘War broke out in heaven.’ With those terrible words we enter into a spiritual reality with immense consequences for us all. The battle between good and evil, the thrusting out of Lucifer, the triumph of Michael, are events that can be understood figuratively yet at the same time make sense personally. We all know the war between good and evil in ourselves and what a close-run thing it is at times. The Church is clear-eyed about this struggle and encourages everyone to hope without presuming. Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, once and for all, but each of us must make his triumph our own, and that is the work of a lifetime.

We are given several helps. Scripture and the sacraments are the first that spring to mind, but there is also our fellowship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church. Too often we forget that we do not face evil alone. We have the saints and our ‘even Christians’ to do battle with us. We also have the angels themselves. The old prayer to St Michael is sometimes smiled at by those who dismiss the idea of evil as ‘quaint’ or the product of an over-heated imagination. I would suggest such persons look at the remains of an aborted child or the body of a victim of chemical warfare or of a woman raped and brutalised and then dare to say, ‘There is no evil.’ Meanwhile, I trust the rest of us will be praying:

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. 

For a Benedictine, of course, angels are everywhere and are constantly linking us with heaven. Their role is primarily one of surveillance, which can be unsettling at times, but Benedict does not dwell on the negative aspects of that. He ends his discussion of the first step of humility, which we read today, with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with an important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins — murder, adultery and so on — we tell ourselves; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Our first step in humility, then, is to become aware of God and to make the angels our friends, that they may help us keep to the strait way that leads to life and eternal happiness. May St Michael and All Angels pray for us and all who seek their protection. Amen.

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