Fanaticism

Yesterday’s events in Norway will have sickened everyone. We have become almost accustomed to bomb attacks, but the mass shooting of young people, that still has power to shock in a way that nothing else can. As we pray for those who died, those who survived and those who must cope with the aftermath, we naturally ask questions about the perpetrator. What kind of mind could conceive of such horrors, let alone carry them out? Our first thought is usually to say, he must be deranged or a fanatic. If he is mentally ill, unable to judge between right and wrong or unaware of the link between action and consequence, what can we do but grieve, for him as for the dead? But if he is a ‘fanatic’? What do we do then?

Fanaticism is zeal gone wrong. Indeed, the origins of the word, from the Latin fanaticus, meaning ‘of a temple, inspired by a god’, show very clearly both the energy and the essential unreasonableness of the fanatic. You cannot argue with someone who does not admit the constraints of being human, of living in society, who does not consider himself bound by the rules. The irony is that Norway has been, until now, one of the most open and tolerant societies in the world. Will it remain so?

Some will no doubt speak of a loss of innocence but there is something darker still: a loss of freedom, of confidence, of humanity itself. Global terrorism has made us suspicious of one another but it takes time to recognize the threat from within. ‘Security’ is now the watchword at our airports and public buildings. We must expect as much in Norway henceforth. Something else died yesterday in Oslo and Utoeya: trust in one another.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Mary Magdalene

Friend of Jesus and apostle to the apostles, Mary Magadalene has nevertheless suffered centuries of opprobrium as a ‘scarlet woman’. No doubt it suited some to identify the seven demons cast out of her as demons of lust, but really there is no justification for doing so. Our only biblical source — Luke — barely mentions her before telling us about her role at Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the Middle Ages we find legends which detail her activity as a leader of the early Church and portray her as ending her life as a hermit in the wilderness, where she was clad only in her long hair. She was indeed a mulier fortis, an admirable model for women today.

There is a photo of Pedro de Mena’s  image of Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifix, 1664, which is now in the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregori, Valladolid, here (many thanks to Dr Southworth for providing the link). It is not only great art but also one of the most moving depictions of Mary Magdalene that I know. However, here is a link you may also enjoy, to a modern web-based ‘Book of Hours’ by Jan Richardson, The Hours of Mary Magdalene. It makes use of many of the Magdalene legends and will make you think (I hope).

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Enda Kenny and the Catholic Church

Most people will have sympathized with Enda Kenny and his denunciation of the apparent slowness with which the  Catholic Church as an institution has got to grips with the implications of, first, the Murphy report and now the Cloyne report. I think I have written enough on this subject for everyone to know the position of the community here. I am troubled, however, by two things: the fact that so many of the clergy still don’t ‘get’ what it is all about, and the fact that it is primarily the laity of today who must pay for the sins of the clergy of the past.

Clergy who are innocent of any kind of abuse (the vast majority) are often bemused by the distrust and hostility directed at them. We find that as nuns we get a small amount of ‘hatemail’ on the subject and sometimes have a few gibes made at us; it must be much worse for the clergy. The point is, our understanding of the Church means that we are all affected by what a few do or have done. There is such a thing as collective responsibility, though I am not sure how far it goes in this case. What I am sure is that adopting a public stance of condemnation and privately playing down the significance of abuse is completely unacceptable. Despite all the talk of safeguarding and putting in place statutory measures to ensure the proper reporting of abuse, etc, there still seems to be comparatively little being done to enable the clergy and those in training to understand, identify and combat paedophilia in their ranks. If I am wrong about this, someone please put me right. I can only speak as I have heard.

My other worry is that when the victims of abuse bring lawsuits against the Church, it is principally the laity of today, especially the poor, who suffer. We have seen what happened in the Boston diocese. No one denies the awfulness of what was done to those who were abused, but the closure of schools and hospitals (and even the making homeless of some of the sisters who served in the diocese) has hurt the poor of today in ways that few are prepared to acknowledge. Other dioceses face similar sorts of closures. Those who are hostile to all forms of religion may rejoice, but those who know only the kindness of Christians will not. During my recent visit to the U.S.A. I was struck by the trust shown to nuns by those at the bottom end of the economic scale: African Americans and Hispanics doing ‘menial’ jobs or out of work altogether  seemed to find it easy to approach and ask for prayer or a blessing or just talk about their concerns. When trust is destroyed, what is left in its place?

Personally, I think we are only just beginning to understand the extent of abuse in the Church. Paedophilia has, quite rightly, come under scrutiny; but there is abuse of authority which affects not just children but adults, too. For all that, the Church remains a divine institution: one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. No matter how flawed, she remains the Bride of Christ, guardian of sacred scripture and of the sacraments, the nexus of our salvation in this world and the next. We must pray for her, love her, serve her, no matter how difficult at times that may be.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Praise of the Salesians

There is much to say about my recent trip to the U.S.A. but there is a lot of catching up to do first, so this will be no more than a brief ‘I’m back’ kind of post.

For the New York part of my stay I enjoyed the hospitality of the Salesian Sisters at Haledon, New Jersey. They couldn’t have been kinder or more generous (though I did wonder briefly whether the large mug and copious quantities of tea bags on 4 July had some Deeper Significance). There were lots of good things I noticed about the Sisters but one struck me very forcibly. I never once heard any of them grumble about any of the other Sisters or speak testily to them. It may be that they already are saints; they certainly are living as saints. Community life isn’t always easy, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. Being thrown together with a group of people one hasn’t chosen and to whom one is not related by blood, each of whom is blessed with idiosyncracies and foibles one doesn’t necessarily share, can be taxing. All credit, then, to the Salesians for being so considerate of one another, not just the guests. St Benedict would have approved.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Praying in a Different Mode

For the past couple of weeks, while away from the monastery, I have experienced many different forms of liturgical prayer. Instinctively, of course, I recall the forms I am familiar with. The rather lengthy Vigils with which we habitually begin the day has no real counterpart in the Roman Office or the many variants derived from it. Yet without that long exposure to psalmody, scripture and the Fathers the day seems somewhat ‘lightweight’. However, on the principle that when in Rome, etc. I have been trying to learn to pray in a different mode, as it were. It has reminded me that liturgy is not about what we ‘do for God’ but entirely about what God does for us. He has no need of our psalmody or our singing, but he gives us both as a way of approaching the mystery of his being. So, yes, I do miss Vigils and Latin Vespers and lots of other things, but I am perfectly content because I know that it is praying in this way, now, and in no other, that I can hope to meet God. Something to remember when attending Mass, too.

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Power of Symbols

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July had more symbolic significance than anything else for the course of the French Revolution, but even today it will be recalled in France with great republican fervour. We all have our own symbols. I ‘knew’ before I came here what a powerful symbol the American flag is for the people of the U.S.A., but seeing it proudly displayed on porches and in car lots, on all manner of buildings, both public and private, has brought home just how intense the focus on it is. I’m not sure we have anything really comparable in England, where no one gets very excited about anything except perhaps cricket and football, but the Church has an abundance of symbols, most of them simple and direct, like light, water, oil.

From time to time one hears someone saying that the Church needs to ‘update’ her use of symbols; that oil, for example, no longer has the significance it once had for people living in the Near East or around the Mediterranean. It’s true that oil is no longer used in quite the same way or for the same purposes, but that does not empty the symbol of its power. The life of the Church is expressed through sign and symbol: it is a language we all learn gradually as we come to see the impossibility of expressing through ordinary human words the extraordinary divine action in our lives. Symbols are powerful things and shouldn’t be underestimated.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Looking through the Window

It is hot here in New York, seriously hot, with a high humidity content. My habit is as limp as I am, so I have chosen to stay indoors and work next to the air conditioning rather than go to the Cloisters Museum as I had hoped. Mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the noonday sun, but not sensible Englishwomen like me (? Ed.)

So, I have been looking at life through the window, as it were. The deer feed near to the convent in the early morning, and there are a couple of turkeys who seem to have taken up residence on the edge of the woodland. It is familiar and strange at the same time. It struck me this morning that ‘looking at life through a window’ is exactly how illness or age may force us to experience much that goes on around us. How much we miss when we cannot hear, smell, touch or taste. The same is true if sight goes and we must rely on the other senses.

I don’t feel deprived that I cannot smell, touch (or taste) those wild turkeys but I am glad that I have the choice, whether to go outside and experience the sensory beauty of the early morning or stay inside my air-conditioned room.  Not everyone has that choice. Thinking about that has certainly transformed my disappointment at not going to The Cloisters. Instead I give thanks for what I have, and want to pray for those who have much less. Please join me in that.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Benedict, Patron of Europe

One of my private heresies is that Benedict was an Englishman. The minor fact of his having been born in Italy at a time when the English did not exist is cheerfully brushed away. How could someone with such reserve, such dry humour, such administrative genius have been anything but English? Of course, even I have to admit that no one nation has a monopoly on these characteristics. I suppose it would be better to say he was a fin-de-siècle Roman, without any fin-de-siècle nastiness.

Europe is very much in Benedict’s debt. His sons and daughters have, over many centuries, prayed and worked and studied their way to holiness; and in the course of doing so, have changed the face of the continent. We think of them today as missionaries and scholars, teachers and people of prayer. Europe is in urgent need of re-evangelisation, and although many wonderful Orders and Congregation have arisen in the Church, there is still a need for Benedictines, perhaps today more than ever. What we bring to the Church is hard to define, but easily recognized when encountered.

After thirty years in monastic life, I think I am just beginning to understand what it is all about: what it means to be a contemplative and a missionary, to be a cloistered nun and someone who reaches out to others with the Word of Life. We have espoused the internet and associated technologies in the same way that our predecessors embraced the quill pen and the printing press, and for much the same reasons; but we know that without the persevering life of prayer, which is largely unseen and unnoticed, everything we do on the net would be pointless. If Europe ever becomes a Christian society, it will be because prayer allowed God full scope to work his miracle of conversion.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Farewell Nebraska, Hello New York

The Benedictine Development Symposium at Schuyler, Nebraska, has come to an end and I’ll shortly be on my way to New York. It’s been a good conference: lots of ideas, professional expertise generously shared, and the genial kindness that marks Benedictines en masse. The monks of Christ the King have been unstinting in their hospitality and one has had the happy sense of being ‘at home among the brethren’. Most of the people I’ve met during the past few days, possibly all of them, I’m unlikely to meet again except online. It’s a reminder to me of how enriching the internet and associated technologies can be. As I give thanks for all I have received during the past few days, I also want to give thanks for the internet, which was both the cause of my being here and will be the means of my sharing what I have learned.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

One Selfish Act Impoverishes the World

Yesterday I was checking my Twitter account and found a reference to the theft of the exquisite twelfth century manuscript known as the Codex Calixtinus (better known to me as the Códice Calixtino) from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. In a moment I was back thirty years to a golden afternoon when the acting archivist of the same cathedral entirely forgot about the English research student beavering away at her notes. He went off to lunch, and for nearly four hours there was just the Codex, the sunshine and me. When the canon finally returned, he had the Colombian Ambassador to Spain in tow, and it fell to me to explain some of the glories of the manuscript. Oh bliss, oh joy, oh rapture!

I daresay security at the archives is now much stricter than it was then (I don’t think I noticed any back in the seventies) but it was not good enough to prevent the theft. The manuscript can never be sold on the open market, it is too well-known; so presumably it was stolen to order, to satisfy the greed of some private ‘collector’. It was an act of pure selfishness which, at a stroke, has deprived the whole world of an irreplaceable treasure.

It is difficult to enter into the mindset of those who will do anything to satisfy their greed. Our heritage from the past is so vulnerable. I often used to think that Spaniards were remarkably casual about theirs, but in the seventies I don’t think I ever encountered one who was dishonest. It would have been a dishonour, and who is more jealous of his honour than a Spaniard? Let us pray that the manuscript will be returned unharmed, and even more, that the desire to possess at the expense of everyone and everything else may be eradicated. A fine sentiment, but unlikely to be realised soon, I fear.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail