The Conversion of St Paul (Again)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1)

Caravaggio’s depiction of the conversion of St Paul is probably one of the best-known paintings of all time, but if you sift through the hundreds of images of it posted online you will notice how much variation there is in the colours and general ‘look’ of the painting. To an ex-printer like me, that comes as no surprise: cameras and monitors introduce an infinite number of small distortions, to say nothing of the different ways we, as individuals, perceive things, especially when we look at them from different angles or in different lights. Instead of dismissing that as ‘just one of those things’, perhaps we can use it as a way of understanding something much harder to put into words.

The longest, loneliest journey Saul of Tarsus ever made was from just outside Damascus, where he was blinded by the light of Christ, to the house of Ananias where his sight was restored and he received his mission to serve. He had been a good man before his conversion but he became a better one after, when he saw that his persecution of followers of The Way had been wrong and he realised that zeal alone is not enough. There must be love and compassion, too. His life henceforth was to be one of ever-expanding knowledge and love of Christ, which meant an ever-expanding love of members of the church. It meant a change of perspective, a re-assessment of values, hard work and sacrifice along with unexpected rewards.

We often forget that Paul grew in grace and understanding, just as our Lord Jesus Christ did and as we ourselves must. As the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end, we may be feeling a little disappointed. There may not have been any major break-throughs. In some places, there may not have been any very obvious efforts to come together in any significant way. We have been too occupied with our own problems or those of the denomination to which we belong.

Perhaps we can take comfort, in the sense of drawing strength and inspiration, from the way in which Caravaggio portrays the moment of the saint’s conversion. All is glare, shock. Saul has been thrown from his horse, blinded, felt condemnation in the voice he hears. But he consents to be led by the hand into the city, where he will become Paul. Becoming fully Paul will take the rest of his life. We see how it works out in the letters he wrote to the young churches and in what we can glean from the Acts of the Apostles. Our work for the unity of Christians will follow the same pattern. We must allow ourselves to be shocked into awareness of the importance of unity and be led by the Spirit into whatever it is God desires for his Church. We do not have answers yet. We do not even have the right questions. But if we do not deliberately place any obstacles in God’s way, we can be quite sure that one day what God desires will come about.

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A Word Fitly Spoken

‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). St Francis de Sales, the Catholic bishop of Geneva and patron saint of writers and journalists (and nowadays, surely, of bloggers, commentators and opinion-makers also) seems to have understood that very well. His courtesy was legendary, but there was nothing complicated about it. He wished to win others to Christ and saw that ‘whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love’. That didn’t mean that he watered down what he believed or that he endorsed views or actions he thought wrong, but he was never one to refuse to engage with those who thought or taught differently. On the contrary, he took more trouble than might have been expected to try to understand those whose opinions or beliefs differed from his. He recognized their goodwill and regarded dialogue as preferable to condemnation, convinced, as he was, that holiness was for everyone, not just ‘professional religious’ like monks and nuns.

We are almost at the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. One of the questions we are asked to consider today is how we tackle prejudice and exclusion in ourselves and in our communities. I think St Francis de Sales, with his gentleness and love for others, has something to teach us all. In the seventeenth century, D. Prudentiana Deacon, a nun of Brussels sent to help the young Benedictine community at Cambrai, obviously thought so, too, for she translated some of his work into English. At first sight, St Francis de Sales is the antithesis of of Fr Augustine Baker, then vicarius of the monastery, and a great exponent of the medieval mystical tradition. A little thought, however, will soon show how wrong that is. Those who truly seek God in prayer cannot but love all his children; and those who love the children must surely seek to deepen their love for the Father.

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On Being Tired

Here is a word of encouragement for anyone who is tired. For the last few days I have myself been feeling as though every effort were beyond me, so it comes from the heart. The community even has a word for this state of weariness — exhaustipation — from which you can see it is commoner than you may have imagined. Everyone experiences it from time to time. The problem is that tiredness is often associated with grumpiness and a feeling of guilt. We tell ourselves we should be doing more; and because we are angry with ourselves, we tend to lash out at our nearest and dearest. We may not say anything hurtful, but most of us are quite good at the pointed silence, the ‘hard stare’ of Paddington Bear or the selective deafness of the PBGV — endearing in them, but not so much in adult Human Beans.

The solution to the problem is actually very simple: a supernumerary nap, a quiet nodding off over a book (or even an email), a period of reflection requiring closed eyes and an absence of engagement with those around us, but with this difference. Our restorative nap needs to be ushered in with a prayer, so that even our sleep can become prayerful. I have always taken as the motto for what I call the Prayer of Gentle Drift those encouraging words from the Song of Songs, Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat. I sleep, but my heart keeps watch (Song of Songs, 5.2). In sleep, we cannot erect any barriers to God or his will as we do when we are awake and on our guard, so that’s worth thinking about. Solomon was a wise man. Let us be wise in our generation, too.

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Dodgy Data and Popular Pitfalls

From time to time I return to the question of what we’re doing online and why. Most recently, I mentioned the carbon footprint of our everyday online activity and suggested that we needed to make sure we were not reckless or profligate. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should. For a Benedictine, thinking in this way is natural. In his chapter on the cellarer (RB 34), St Benedict urges the business manager of the monastery to look on everything entrusted to his care as sacred, and to avoid both extravagance and parsimony. Reverence is another key theme of the Rule, a reverence that extends beyond the human and spiritual to the physical and material. The goods and property of the monastery are not to be treated casually or in a sloppy manner. As a result, I have often thought Benedict was an ecologist avant la lettre, one who has marvelled at the beauty of creation and desires to fulfil his duty of tending and sustaining it. In the same way, our community found its inspiration for its online activity in Benedict’s teaching on hospitality in chapter 53. That is why our first tweet of the day and our first Facebook post are always prayer (cf RB 53.4). It is why this blog exists, and why we are keen to revamp our other web sites, including that for online retreats. In the last few days, however, I have been thinking about a problem we all encounter online at some time or other: dodgy data and popular pitfalls.

As apps and web sites multiply, the internet becomes bigger and more hazardous for even the most knowlegeable and intrepid. False stories abound, and I’m not referring to the more or less harmless ‘joke’ variety. Many have died from measles as a direct consequence of the rumours spread about vaccination. Others have taken for truth erroneous claims about both individuals and organizations. Worse still, these lies have been spread by many who would be aghast to realise the part they had played in ruining another’s reputation or subjecting to unnecessary stress and anguish someone innocent of the charges being made against them. Sometimes, it is all down to ignorance and reacting too quickly rather than pausing to reflect for a moment or two.

Faced with an interesting story or piece of information, how many of us actually take the time to check facts with snopes.com before we press the send button? Even the minimum time needed for reflection tends to be curtailed because ‘everything is instant online’. So, instead of checking when something was written and by whom, we propagate a lie and make it even more difficult to correct. That is especially true of photos and videos. Everyone knows how easy it is to fake them, but how often do we do even the most elementary checks? For example, uploading a suspicious photo to the Google image search-box will reveal if/where it has appeared online and when. Notoriously, a video widely circulated with the title ‘Muslims celebrating after Paris terror attacks 2015’ turned out to be footage of Pakistanis cheering after a cricket match held in 2009. Yet, if you look, you will still find that video being trotted out as ‘evidence’ of Muslim malice. The contrary is true.

I believe that Christians have a role to play in trying to make the internet a safe and useful place to be because we are, or ought to be, people of integrity to whom truth matters. If we find that we ourselves have made a mistake, own up to it, post a correction and draw people’s attention to it. Support attempts to keep children and young people safe online. Welcome the UK Government’s Age Appropriate Design Code (due to become operational in Autumn 2021 — see yesterday’s announcement here: https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2020/01/ico-publishes-code-of-practice-to-protect-children-s-privacy-online/). Remember that we still have people using the internet who are not well-informed about its darker side and just assume everyone is telling the truth. Above all, take time to think. Yesterday I did something foolish online. I uploaded a short post about the feast of St Agnes and the exploitation of children. I’d hoped people would read it and think about the ways in which we can, unintentionally, let young people down. I followed it up with a light-hearted tweet about the image I’d used to illustrate my post (especially the first paragraph). Twice the number of people who read the post tweeted, emailed or messaged me their views on religious art. Bro Duncan PBGV used to urge people to be more dog. All I can say is, where the internet is concerned, don’t be a silly-billy like me. Think first!

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St Agnes and the Exploitation of Children

St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)
St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)

We know very little about St Agnes, except that she was martyred at an early age and was the inspiration for much of St Ambrose’s thinking and writing about consecrated virginity. Neither martyrdom nor consecrated virginity seems to exercise much appeal nowadays, which may be why this day is more often associated with the basilica of Sta Cecilia in Rome, where the pope will bless the lambs whose wool will be made into the pallium worn by the pope and archbishops. There is a curious fitness about that, because I think it underlines the way in which we tend to filter out everything that is disturbing or ugly and substitute what easily becomes sentimental. Fluffy white lambs are much more attractive than broken limbs or children and adolescents abused or exploited by adults.

A third of the world’s poorest girls are denied access to education, according to a report issued by the U.N. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51176678). The number of boys and girls who are homeless, living in sub-human conditions in refugee camps, working as bonded labour, forced into marriage or otherwise exploited is frighteningly large. In the U.K. we have learned, to our shame and disgust, of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by so-called pillars of society — clergy, teachers, doctors, parents, relatives and many more — and have been horrified by some of the high-profile cases of neglect reported by the media. The IICSA reports and the recent BBC documentary on Bishop Peter Ball have been sickening in their exposure of the depravity of which the human heart is capable.

Most of us protest, quite rightly, that we condemn any and all such behaviour — then we go off and hurl insults at Greta Thunberg or say of a young boy knifed to death by a drugs gang that ‘he got what he deserved’ and do not register the inconsistency. If we truly believe that children should be respected and protected, we need to examine our own conduct first. The manufacturer who sexualises the clothing worn by the young; the singer or influencer who foists on children the acceptability of conduct they are not yet intellectually or emotionally ready for; the parent or teacher who abdicates responsibility for those entrusted to their care; the pastor who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — indeed, anyone and everyone is capable of the massive self-deceit that leads to the abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents.

Instead of dismissing St Agnes as one of those saints who are no longer ‘relevant’ to our times, it would be far better to see her as someone who can provide a valuable corrective to our treatment of young people today. Her courage, her clear-sighted love of Christ, her youthful fragility, which was so much stronger than the brutal power of those who put her to death, make her both inspiring and loveable. I admit, teenagers are not always loveable all the time, and younger children can be maddening in their own unique way, but unless we see and love in the young that which God sees and loves in them, how can we truly claim to be his disciples?

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Acts of Kindness

The theme for this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today, is Acts of Kindness. It was set by the people of Malta, who famously treated the shipwrecked Paul with exemplary kindness. As I mentioned in my post of 16 January, there are a range of resources that can be downloaded from Churches Together. I don’t want to duplicate anything said there, but I think it is always helpful to ask ourselves what we mean by being kind, really kind. Too often we seem to limit it to not deliberately giving pain, rather like Newman’s definition of a gentleman, but the word itself should provide a clue, particularly if we look at its origins. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another, to be of the same lineage, the same family. We don’t often use the word in that sense these days, but perhaps we should. To acknowledge our common humanity and the unity we already have by virtue of our baptism into Christ is, for Christians, an excellent starting-point for what we are about this week. Random acts of kindness may be popular in some circles, but there is nothing random about those practised by Jesus’ disciples. We are his Body; we have a purpose, and He is with us always until it is fulfilled.

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Beyond Our Strength?

For a couple of days now I have been trying to put up a blind in my room. I have a powerful electric drill and enough screws and rawlplugs to last the community many years to come. What I don’t have is enough puff or breath to hold the drill for more than a a minute or two at a time. The obvious solution, to ask someone else to do the job, isn’t actually a solution at all. I wouldn’t have begun the task if anyone else had been available — and that, I suspect, is a situation familiar to lots of people. We find ourselves trying to do something that exceeds our ability or strength and end up feeling foolish or cross when we fail. Worse still, we sometimes berate ourselves for our pride or silliness (as we see it) and forget something rather important. We tried. We had a go. We didn’t allow our all-too-obvious limitations to define what we would attempt, and we recognized that if we didn’t try, no one else would.

We shall soon be beginning the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.* At times, Christian unity seems impossible of attainment. Our differences cannot be minimised, unless we are prepared to be dishonest with ourselves and others; nor can we kid ourselves that holding a few services together or joining in some action plan to improve the lot of the poor or disadvantaged is enough to satisfy the longing Christ has for his Church, that we may all be one. St Benedict urges us to pray that grace will supply what is impossible to us by nature, and that is as true of our quest for unity as anything else. Ultimately, our unity depends on fidelity to grace. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and, as such, must be led by the Spirit. ‘Led’ you notice, not, ‘don’t think of doing anything because God will do everything’. We have to begin somewhere. We are involved. The praying and working together is essential, but it must be prayer that goes beyond the joint services, work that exceeds the token gesture. What lies before us is indeed beyond our strength, but we do not rely on ourselves alone. It is grace, and grace only, that allows us to see the humility of God in inviting us to co-operate with him and gives us courage for the task.

*The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is traditionally held from 18 to 25 January. You can download resources for this year from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland: https://ctbi.org.uk/resources-for-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity-2020/

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Star Dust

The announcement that scientists have discovered the oldest material known to exist on earth in the Murchison meteorite is thrilling (see, for example, what the BBC made of it here: https://is.gd/UZpjOA). Older than the earth itself, older than the sun, it is literally star dust — fragments of real stars — and 7.5 billion years old. That conjures up a lovely vision of something glittery and bright. The reality, however, is slightly more prosaic. Ground up, shavings from the meteorite apparently smell like rotten peanut butter, then have to be dissolved in acid for testing.

I’m sure many a homilist will be using this report to make a point which, depending on their temperament, may include any of the following

  • our Creator God existed even before this;
  • our celebrity culture stinks and destroys those who embrace it;
  • the world was made 4,004 years ago and to deny that is to deny scripture, so this can’t be true.

Only the first appeals to me. The discoveries of science are rather like what St Bernard says of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘a wonder and a joy’. The Murchison meteorite and its fellows may hold more secrets to be uncovered, but the lessons we draw from them mainly depend on us and our openness to the unknown. A small mind and a small heart often go together. Let’s hope that ours will be large, with more than a scattering of another kind of star dust, the kind that really matters: love of God and others.

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