In Praise of Books

Saturday morning is a good time for indulging a not-so-private enthusiasm for books and reading. I admit I love books: their shape, colour, texture, smell (I got over loving the taste at about age three). I love reading them; I love handling them; I love looking at them on their shelves or wherever they happen to be. Because I am, in some degree, a maker of books myself, I lap up typefaces and layouts, silently noting good or bad typography, choice of paper, ink and binding. I smile over unintentional contradictions, chuckle over misplaced punctuation, purr when I find a gerund or gerundive correctly used. Books are for reading I tell myself, so I don’t mind when the pages are scribbled on, turned down at important passages, loved literally to bits. I like reading on the monastery’s iPod Touch as well. At night, in bed, it’s light and comfortable to hold and there’s a great range of free books I actually want to read, such as Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain, still the most readable guide to Iberia.

Tonight is World Book Night and it’s calculated that over a million books will be given away free at various venues — pubs, clubs and churches, to name but a few. We shall be safely tucked up in bed when all that happens, but tomorrow morning after Mass we shall be giving away new books on Newman and the saints, about thirty all told. You have to be there to get a book, so no email requests, please; and, of course, if you are minded to make a donation towards our Monastery project, we won’t turn it down. Happy reading!

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Women’s World Day of Prayer 2011

Map of Ivory CoastLast night I could not sleep. Trying to pray failed to cure my insomnia, so I fell back on listening to the World Service. A report from Ivory Coast shocked me. A woman described how a group of about 5,000 unarmed women had gathered to march in support of Alassane Ouattara. As they began to do so, tanks appeared and at least six women were gunned down by the security forces (the woman speaking claimed eight were shot, including one pregnant woman whose womb was ripped open and another whose head was blown off in front of her). This morning, that report is not even mentioned on the front page of the BBC news web site. To me, that is eloquent both of the quiet heroism of many women and their “unimportance”.

It is ironic yet strangely fitting that the news should reach us today, which is Women’s World Day of Prayer. Had those Ivorean women been hurling sticks and stones, I suppose the story might have been more newsworthy, but they were defenceless, in a part of Africa no one except God thinks about very much or very often. Today huge numbers of women throughout the world will be gathering together to pray, and the prayer of all will be one with the prayer of the powerless and “unimportant” in every age. I believe such prayer is powerful with God. Perhaps the death of those women in Ivory Coast may help bring about the political change which no amount of diplomatic dealing or violence has yet been able to do. I certainly hope so.

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Of God and Geeks

Many people use this blog as their first point of reference for our other sites so here is a little round-up of domestic news. iBenedictines itself has been optimized for use on mobile devices using wp-touch. As far as I can see, that has worked well. There is no such instant solution for a conventional web site, so we have built a new version of our monastery web site just for small screen mobile devices. It has its own domain, http://www.benedictinenuns.net, and you can, in fact, view it using a desktop or laptop. It doesn’t have all the content of the main site, but since we have recently added more material, it should keep you usefully occupied as you travel the Northern line (or is it the District, I forget). Finally, just in time for Lent, our online retreat service should be going live on http://www.catholicretreats.org.uk and http://www.benedictinesonline.org.uk. The actual launch date will be announced once our beta-testers have finished telling us everything they don’t like about the way we have set things up.

This is, of course, pretty low-grade geekiness by today’s standards, but it does have one redeeming feature, in our eyes, at least. It is all done out of love for God and in the hope of allowing his love to reach people who would never be seen inside a church, as well as those who who are already committed to him. It is an expression of Benedictine hospitality, twenty-first century style. If you look at the Future section of our web site, you’ll see that we don’t believe in substituting virtual for real encounters, but we’ve made a start on trying to find a way to offer an experience of monastic peace to those in search of it. Please pray that, if it be pleasing to God, our venture of faith may be blessed.

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Cold Shoulders and Exclusion Zones

All this week we are reading what is known as “the penal code” in the Rule of St Benedict. We began on Monday with a consideration of excommunication for faults, moved on to consider what the measure of excommunication should be and are today contemplating how more serious faults should be dealt with; tomorrow we’ll be looking at those who communicate with the excommunicated without permission, on Friday we’ll be considering the role of the abbot in caring for the excommunicated and on Saturday and Sunday we’ll consider two special cases, that of monks who leave the monastery and the correction of children and adolescents within the cloister (now of purely historic interest). It is a quite extended treatment of a problem that every society faces: how to deal with those who don’t keep the rules.

We all know how effective excommunication is. To be excluded from the group, given the cold shoulder, sent to Coventry, whatever you like to call it, is very painful. We are social beings and rely on interaction with others to remain human. That is why Benedict introduces into the monastery a nuanced scheme of degrees of exclusion related to the seriousness of the offence committed. The really important chapter is RB 27 which details the special care the abbot must have for the excommunicated. I think this underlines the difference between excommunication proceeding from indignation “you don’t conform to our expectations” to excommunication proceeding from concern “you matter too much for us to let you go on hurting yourself”. It is tricky, however, and a powerful reminder that anyone responsible for maintaining discipline, whether in the monastery or the workplace, needs many of the qualities Benedict looks for in an abbot: wisdom, compassion, humility and a genuine desire for the good of others. Get it wrong and you will have inflicted a dreadful injury; get it right and you will have helped your brother (or sister).

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Equality is not Fairness

Yesterday Eunice and Owen Johns lost their appeal in the High Court. They had wanted to become respite foster carers but a social worker at Derby City Council had expressed concern at the couple’s opinions about homosexuality. In the words of Mr Johns, “We are prepared to love and accept any child. All we were not willing to do was to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing.”

In giving their verdict, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beaton said that while Christians in general might well make good foster parents, people with traditionalist views like Mr and Mrs Johns might well not. (I suppose we should ask the fifteen children the Johns fostered back in the 90s about that, but it could be a bit radical, to look at the evidence.) Anyway, breathtaking though the judges’ assessment of Christianity may be, what is really significant is what followed. The court said that while there was a right not to face discrimination on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation, equality of sexual orientation took precedence. In other words, the law is to be interpreted according to secular values. In part, that seems absolutely right; in part, it seems very dangerous, for it will mean that Christian opposition to euthanasia, for example, will have no value in law. Conscience will count for nothing.

Today we expect to hear that charging lower insurance premiums for women drivers (who cause fewer accidents and are therefore a lower risk than men) is discriminatory and contrary to our laws about sex equality. In the name of equality, therefore, premiums for women will go up, and premiums for men will go down; but the nature of the risk will not change.

Both these cases concern equality, and nothing could demonstrate more clearly that equality is not the same as fairness. I don’t know the Johns, but I have a feeling that there may be questions that are not being addressed or which have not come out in reporting of the case. Respite care is not the same as long-term fostering or adoption. It is a valuable service that comparatively few are able or willing to offer. While one applauds Derby City Council’s determination to find the best possible foster carers, one wonders whether in this instance it has not sacrificed children’s interests to a theoretical position on equality. Similarly, in the case of car insurance premiums, equality in one area must mean arbitrariness in the assessment of risk in others. Certainly, I shall be challenging our insurers to explain how they assess the risk I pose (not many male nuns around, I think).

Sometimes we work hard to achieve equality and forget that fairness is also important. I may not be alone in wondering whether our copious equality legislation isn’t producing a society that is harsher and less fair than it ought to be. What can we as Christians do about it?

Update
Since writing the above I’ve realised that many will think I am criticizing the High Court opinion about the Johns or taking issue over the suitablity of the Johns to be foster parents. I am not. I am using their case to discuss our assumptions about equality. I don’t think the Johns should have taken their case to court in the first place, but that is just my opinion and does not affect what I am trying to say about equality and fairness.

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Gaddafi and the Problem of Tyranny

Watching the very public agonizing of President Obama and others over what to do about Libya set me thinking about the way in which Christian writers have attempted to deal with the problem of tyranny. That it is a problem is obvious. You have only to read Romans 13. 1-7, which seems to recommend absolute submission to earthly rulers (and has often been quoted by earthly rulers as justification for whatever they want to do) to see the dimension of the problem. People must put up with anything and everything, right?

Some Christians would certainly agree. Indeed, those of us who have vowed obedience to a religious superior know that our vow obliges us to obedience in all that is not sin. The problem comes when we and our superior disagree on what constitutes sin (folly is a sin, dear Mother) or we venture into that grey area which St Thomas Aquinas describes as “not sin, but sharing in the nature of sin.”

St Thomas gave a lot of thought to that passage from Romans. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Bk2, dist.44, quest. 2, art 2), he makes a distinction between authority derived from God and authority that isn’t. In other words, rulers must fulfil certain conditions if they are to be obeyed. He provides this helpful little guide to identifying rulers whose authority is not God-given:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

Thomas goes on to argue that both passive and active resistance to tyranny are allowable. He also considers whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to kill a tyrant. With regard to the tyranny of Julius Caesar he concludes that “in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded.” That is strong stuff and is the natural consequence of what he has to say about the nature of legitimate authority, how it is conferred and how it should operate. Thomas’s principal concern is for the good of the community (which reminds us he was a medieval, not a modern, man) but he was aware of what Walter Ullmann called the “ascending theme of government”, the need for the people’s consent. Only those who protect the good of the people are legitimate rulers in St Thomas’s eyes.

I find it interesting that St Thomas should write so clearly about a problem that exercises our minds today. At what point does someone cease to be a legitimate ruler, what are the limits of obedience and what is the scope of legitimate disobedience? The answer might have surprised my novice mistress.

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Pondering the Prayerline

One of the most popular parts of our web site is the Prayerline. Every day we download numerous requests, and from time to time certain patterns emerge. At the moment, the bulk of requests from the U.S.A., for example, concern financial worries: finding a job, avoiding foreclosure on the house, affording medical care. We find it easy to identify with these needs. Just like everyone else, we have the monthly challenge of finding rent and council tax, affording utility and household bills, keeping a car on the road (we live in a village) and generally making ends meet from a variable income (we run a small design company.) Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about affording essential medical care because the NHS continues to provide a cradle to the grave service of which we are rightly proud.

British prayer requests tend to be family-centred. There are pleas for people in hospital or facing a life-threatening illness, broken relationships, estrangements. Requests from South America or Asia are often concerned with getting on in the world: prayer for exam success or admission to a particular course. From Africa come requests for the gift of children and freedom from evil spirits. From many parts of the world come requests from those who experience persecution because of their Faith.

Whatever the request, we hold it before the Lord, confident that God will hear our prayer. Nothing is too small for his notice, nothing too big for him to deal with. He may not answer as we or the petitioner might hope, but that is his business, not ours. Our business is simply to ask.

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The Problem of the Week-End

A chance remark by a friend made me think about what we mean by a week-end. In monasteries week-ends tend to be busy. There are often visitors, both individuals and groups, and Sunday, of course, is liturgically the high-spot of the week, a day we try to mark with special joy. By Monday we can be feeling a little limp, but that is when the working week begins again so we must move into another gear. Yet I still look forward to the week-end. Despite the busyness, there is a sense of winding-down, of a different quality to the days. I am not sure what it consists in but it is not a figment of my imagination. Time is a human construct, so maybe it is at base a philosophical problem. That’s too much like hard work. Just enjoy your week-end.

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Managing Expectations

I imagine we all have our own take on this. There are the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we have of ourselves. The expectations God has of anyone rarely seem to figure, probably because he is much less demanding than we are.

I have become fairly inured to the expectations others have of me as a nun. I know I should be eternally young, beautiful, patient and kind, needing nothing, giving everything; but as I can’t manage any of that, I am quite happy to disappoint. The expectations I have of others are more troubling. I know I have sometimes burdened them with my expectations, wanting them to be perfect in a way that I am not perfect myself or, worse still, to be perfect in the way that I have decided for them. Finally, there are the expectations I have of myself, which are largely delusional, even down to the time it will take me to do something (one always underestimates).

And God? God is different. “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” What God wants is us, just as we are: poor, weak, wobbly and absolutely infuriating, always misunderstanding, backsliding and generally unsatisfactory. God is never disappointed in us, never put out by our failures, because no matter how often we get it wrong he still sees in us something we so often fail to register: “Christ lovely in limbs not his”. Praise him.

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Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

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