Yesterday I made a joke on Twitter. (I often make jokes and have the pleasure of seeing them descend to earth with all the delicacy of a lead balloon, but bear with me.) Irritable Nun Syndrome is a condition I have sometimes diagnosed in myself when tired or oppressed by the adolescent feeling that others just don’t understand. The lapidary sentence that distills a lifetime of thought and learning being taken a little too literally; the gracious nod in the direction of someone truly great being completely missed; the gentle irony mistaken for something much worse. You know the kind of thing. All terribly humbling, but annoying too.
I was chuntering along these lines when I realised that in St Athanasius I, and all sufferers from Irritable Nun Syndrome, have a wonderful ally. Not because we can compare ourselves in any way to such a great saint but because, as the dauntless champion of the Incarnation with a passionate concern for the integrity of Catholic belief, Athanasius was one of the most awkward men who have ever lived. He bristles, he burns, and he pays the price in exile and obloquy. At heart, I think he was something of a monk.
All monks and nuns are, to some degree, awkward people. We are free, as few other people are free, to follow the logic of our conversion to Christ. That freedom confers a great responsibility on us. There will undoubtedly be times when we wish to shirk it or shrink it to something we feel we can ‘manage’, but as St Benedict reminds us in the opening words of the Rule, we have stripped ourselves of self-will to fight for the true King, Christ our Lord, with the strong and glorious weapons of obedience. Athanasius was throughout his life a man of unwavering fidelity to the obedience he had vowed. May he pray for us all.