In Tune or Out of Step?

On several occasions recently I have found myself wondering whether I am in a minority of one. For example, I did not think Carol Ann Duffy’s poem on Stephen Lawrence, published in the 9 January edition of The Guardian, very good. That is not to question her sincerity or the topicality of her subject. It was the treatment of her theme that I found weak and pedestrian. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t poetry, so it was a relief to find Ian Patterson saying as much in the London Review of Books. You can read his comment here. We all have our own ideas about poetry, I suppose, but when everyone else seems to be hailing something as ‘great’ or ‘moving’, one can question one’s own sanity as well as judgement.

Earlier in the week The Guardian printed an article by Mehdi Hasan entitled ‘Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Rick Santorum’. Point 8 stated, When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home, where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

Mehdi Hasan seems to have found this macabre at best and in a subsequent piece argued that those who thought he was wrong to criticize the Santorums were themselves wrong. Clearly, he has had no experience of the grief felt by the parents of stillborn children nor thought about the variety of mourning customs that exist. To me, it did not seem strange that the Santorums should wish to spend some time with their dead child, pray for him, welcome him into their family as a person. It is a very Catholic thing to do. You would not have got that impression reading some of the comments! Again, it was a relief to find this thoughtful piece on the web which not only deals with the need to mourn a stillborn child but the way in which responsible journalism needs to address such difficult subjects.

Finally, an article about the manufacture of altar-breads in the U.S.A. (which you can read here) raised interesting questions for me about the Eucharistic nature of work and the economics of cloistered communities. I shared the link on Facebook and was interested to see that many people jested where I myself was made thoughtful, probably because some of the difficulties mentioned in the article were close to home.

These three instances highlight the fact that we always bring our own perceptions (and sometimes our prejudices) to what we read. We interpret. We are, of necessity, subjective. We sometimes miss words and phrases as we skim through articles. I think, on the whole, monks and nuns tend to read very carefully. We are, after all, proponents of Slow Reading (lectio divina). That doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand any better or misinterpret less frequently, but I think it does make us more cautious about asserting that we have fully understood, less anxious, I hope, to ‘put others right.’ Maybe there is room for more  humility in how we read. That is something I hope to practise this coming year.


13 thoughts on “In Tune or Out of Step?”

  1. Do you like this, I wonder (from Eliot, The Family Reunion) ? — “In a world of fugitives the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away. If the truth has made us odd, if we have not accommodated ourselves out of all recognition, then it will appear to some people that we’re running away, that we’re living an escapist existence, that we’re outsiders, even outlaws–whereas the truth is that we’re the insiders, because we’re bearing God’s reality.”

    • Thank you, Eric, that gives me something to ponder for the rest of today. The ‘problem of authenticity’, of trying to be truthful when one thinks/sees differently from others can be a source of anguished self-doubt. I suppose the other danger, of assuming one is right and everyone else is wrong, is less likely to those of us reared in a liberal intellectual tradition, but it is still there. Another reason to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Like you I found the article on altar-breads thought provoking. It reminded me that when the gifts are presented we are asked to remember ‘what earth has given and human hands made’. I have conjured up many images on hearing this phrase, but never of an large scale industrial process, factory workers or marketing people. This will be a challenge. For me it is easier to view a wholemeal, home baked loaf as a gift, as sacramental.
    Never fear though Sister, Orwell believed that sanity might lie in being a minority of one.

  3. When I was doing Holy Stir biblical commentaries were, naturally, much the order of the day. Many of the more ancient tomes on offer would have extensive footnotes cross-referencing ‘twixt and across OT and NT.

    Every once in a while there would be a small neat correction made: Leviticus X:IV being scored out for Leviticus XI:IV. You have to understand something of the monastic mindset to follow what’s happening here. This is far less the scholar or the pedant gleefully alighting on a mistake and dazzling the later reader with his or her depth of scriptural knowledge, but much more the patient, thoughtful reader who – minded that this is the Word of God – looks up each of the references, puzzles if they are not correct, seeks out the correct passage and then makes the necessary correction in order that another monk may not be later led into error on so vital a matter.

    The monk with his pencil may not have been a great scholar, may not have been any more a saint than the next fellow; but he was considered, thoughtful and he was courteous. He was, above all in this context, a magnificent reader of a type, sadly, rarely encountered outside of a monastery.

  4. Interesting; thank you.

    As an aside, the page on the manufacture of the hosts reminded me of something a priest who was helping with the training of children for Holy Communion once said to me: the problem was not convincing them that the consecrated host was the Body of Christ, but in getting them to accept that it was bread at all!

    • The thick hosts we used to have were not much of an improvement on the paper-thin wafers more commonly used because they were a bit like cardboard; and come to think of it, the sweet, treacly stuff used as communion wine never seemed very much like the stuff my father gave us at the dinner table.

  5. Thanks for this, Dame Catherine. I like your title. Being in tune and in step – both activities which require listening. The next question must be, ‘in tune with what/ whom?’ Intonation is a big preoccupation in my work, but in emergencies, we often just end up tuning to the loudest thing in the room. Concerts end (sometimes a lot sharper than they began!), but life goes on, and tuning to the loudest is not a solution. So, please keep singing: we like the sound; we trust your tuning fork, and we need reminding of the true pitch.

  6. I recently was a parishioner at a parish in TX that among many others had a “bread ministry”, a group of (mostly) ladies would gather every week and back loaves of bread to be used for communion that week. It was the only parish I have been to that does that, and it was nice. I agree with the idea that the problem lies more in convincing kids that what is typically given is bread as opposed to the idea that it is the body of Christ.

    • We sometimes bake unleavened bread for Mass here, and have, in the past, even made wine for it (treading the grapes in the old-fashioned way) but the problem with home-baking is that one can get crumbs if the temperature isn’t right.

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