Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?

When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?

First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.

Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!

Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?

I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?

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20 thoughts on “Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times”

  1. Dear Sister Catherine
    Thank you!
    I second Stuart’s comment. A corker ( a deep one) I need to re- read and ponder.- and make the effort.
    Glad you are feeling well enough to write such a blog

  2. Mike Pence is Vice President of the United States, Mike Pompeo is Secretary of State.

    “Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.”

    Good word.

  3. Thanks, I needed to hear this today. I’ve just had a very ‘dry’ spiritual experience in a place I would have expected the reverse ( Rue de Bac), your piece has really put it up to me, what shall I do?

  4. I’d thought I wouldn’t vote but your words made me realise I have a duty to if I am to make things better – though it’s hard to know which party will do this. Perhaps I should prey for guidance…..
    Michael – So good to see a blog from you again. x

  5. Thank you as ever, dear Sister Catherine, for a most relevant and thought provoking piece. Pray, read carefully and be courteous to everyone are sound tenets for leading a good life. I intend to vote in this forthcoming election but am dismayed that the leaders of all of the parties for whom candidates are standing in our constituency lack real honesty, humility or talent. As usual the tussle here falls on the two major parties and both of the leaders and prospective Prime Ministers fall very short on nearly all counts. The prospects for the other three candidates in the constituency are so poor that casting votes for them, however meritorious, would be to fritter away what little power an individual voter may possess. I do not trust either of the main combatants to do what is best for our people either with Brexit or the economy. One smacks of devious privilege and the other of selective profligacy and waste. Both appear to offer poor fare and are too ready to fritter away scarce resources in huge amounts on projects which will add very little to the well being of the disadvantaged, the dispossessed, the vulnerable or disabled members of society.
    Neither of them seem too concerned about the impact of violence on society, the paucity of much of our current infrastructure and systems or the potential threat to life itself from latent climate change, plastic and air pollution.
    As always, l pray for the world and its ordinary people. I also pray that the good Lord will bless, care for and heal you. And that His grace, peace and love will be there for everyone whether they believe in Him or not.

    • I agree that it is extremely hard to know who to vote for in the forthcoming election. I have recently attended talks by Professor Brian Cox, Astrophysicist and Doug Allen wildlife photographer and marine biologist who has spent many years filming in both the Artic and Antarctic for series such as the Blue Planet. Both had the same final message. Climate change, one calling it an emergency the other ‘Climat breakdown’. None of the main political parties seem to be addressing this global emergency. The Green Party are the exception but they promote abortion and some argue that we need to reduce the population of the world to reverse the damage we have done since the industrial revolution. I have heard nothing from the hierarchy of the Church that may help Catholics to make an informed decision. So what do we do, what if we don’t receive a clear answer to prayers on the matter?

      • My response, with which Tim may not agree, is that we have to consider which person or party we regard as the best on offer. I couldn’t vote for the Greens because of their stance on abortion, but will be studying the manifestos of the other parties with care.

  6. We must love them both, those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. For both have labored in the search of truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it.” Thomas Aquinas

  7. I agree so much with what you say about the need to read the written word AND people more carefully, attending to nuance. With the current craze for short texts and speed reading so much is lost and perhaps relationships destroyed. We must all slow down.

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