Overseas Aid: How Much is Enough?

The leak of Liam Fox’s letter challenging the Government’s plan to enshrine in law the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid has been brilliantly timed to coincide with Christian Aid Week. Or rather, brilliantly mistimed. On the one hand, we have the Defence Secretary raising legitimate concerns about the effect of such a statutory requirement on the Government’s freedom to allocate spending as it sees fit (something we all need to think about, given the commitment of British forces in Afghanistan, Libya, etc); on the other, we have the example of years of quiet do-goodery (using that word without any pejorative overtones) funded by the generosity of private donors to Christian Aid, an organization I very much admire.

Christian Aid is using the slogan ‘Help people in poverty out of poverty. For good.’ For me, the sting is in that ‘For good.’ You could dismiss it as merely fashionable punctuation. Which likes to do things differently. Or you could take it as an expression of something more important, the motive for and the consequence of giving being the good of others. Poverty is something one can find anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically hungry or without access to education or medical care. Mother Teresa was appalled by the spiritual poverty she saw in the west, but we tend to dismiss that. We don’t need religious people telling us that we lack something. We are generous; we support lots of good causes; we believe in the secular redemption of a secular society.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it can lead to complacency. I can save the world by not eating meat/using wind power/delete as applicable. Complacency is another form of spiritual poverty, the refusal not so much to give as the refusal to share. To give is sometimes to place oneself above another; to share is to place oneself alongside. What troubles me about Dr Fox’s letter is that many will take the argument about Government spending and turn it back on itself, asserting that we cannot afford to give to others because of our own needs as a country. We need organizations like Christian Aid to remind us that overseas aid is not about giving to poorer nations but sharing resources with them. How much is enough? I don’t know, but I believe we need to think about it.

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Vocation: the Personal and Communal Dimensions

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.

For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.

None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.

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The Forgotten Apostle

St Matthias doesn’t make the headlines very often. Ask the average churchgoer and eyes will tend to glaze, ‘Um, er, didn’t he replace Judas or something?’ Indeed he did. Matthias’s election shows us the early Church in action, acknowledging the importance of the Twelve and claiming both the right and the duty of continuing the succession. Matthias’s fidelity, his having been with the disciples from the beginning, his obscurity and his humility, are tremendously appealing. I made profession of vows on his feast and have always found him, and the gospel of the day, John 15, inspiring. On the eve of Good Shepherd Sunday, he is a good saint to ask for vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.

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A Morning Walk

This morning the dog took us for a walk through the lambing fields and along the edge of a coppice before returning via the Hendred brook and under the trees. Nothing very remarkable in that, you may think, but oh, how wrong you’d be! It was one of those ‘anonymous’ mornings — not very sunny, but warm and bright, like a thousand other mornings. The grass was thick and high, the cow parsley jostling with buttercups and one or two lingering bluebells. Wrens and finches appeared in abundance, all going about their lawful occasions, while red kites wheeled overhead with their peculiar mewing cry. We glimpsed a hare and smelled where a fox had lain; the ewes called after their lambs and the lambs, very properly, ignored their mothers, save when a trip to the milk bar seemed in order. It was all very ordinary and all very extraordinary at the same time. The Psalmist understood this well when he wrote of the landscape of Israel with its rabbits and goats and doves and swallows. ‘Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ This morning, I rather think it did.

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Thinking Aloud About Trust

I didn’t know Osama bin Laden had been killed until I returned to Britain on Wednesday last week. Immediately, it seemed, the world was abuzz with claim and counterclaim about what actually happened. Whose account should we trust? Whose account COULD we trust? At the same time, the endless rumble about ‘the financial services industry’ (banks to you and me) continues to raise questions about trust; so too does the debate about the limits of freedom of the press. The Catholic Church is still feeling the effects of the lack of trust that inevitably follows from what we have learned about the abuse of children and adolescents. Everywhere we look, it seems, public trust is very low. Is it any wonder that bad faith and lack of trust often mark our private lives too?

For me, the problem with that question is that it presupposes that public morality shapes and determines our private codes of morality and honour. It is true that some people take their ideas of right and wrong from what is legal or not (though I have to say that does not seem to apply to speed limits). That is why time and energy is devoted to promoting/opposing/repealing legislation which touches on human rights, or what are perceived to be such. Fundamentally, however, it is our private ‘world view’ which shapes our attitude to the public sphere. If there is a lack of trust, and even more, a lack of trustworthiness, in our private lives, it is absurd to expect better in the public sphere. If we bend the truth, why shouldn’t others? Isn’t that why we sometimes doubt what we are told, rather than because we think others are trying to hoodwink us?

I was sickened by what bin Laden did in life, but I have also been sickened by the gloating that has followed his death. The desire to circulate photographs of his dead body to ‘prove’ that he is dead is nothing of the sort. It is a manifestation of something I’d call glee, a measure of the lack of trust in our public institutions and, by implication, an admission of the lack of trustworthiness in our own lives. Overstated? Possibly. Trust is a beautiful quality, well worth cultivating. When it is lost or destroyed, something very precious passes from the earth.

 

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eLibraries and What They Say About Us

Yesterday afternoon I spent a few minutes transferring my personal elibrary onto the monastery’s newly acquired iPhone (the gift of a kind friend and benefactor who knew of the problems we had had with another variety of smartphone). Once upon a time, one could look through people’s bookshelves and learn a lot about their interests. Kindles and iPods and iPads have made the elibrary a much more private experience. Our own elibrary is made up entirely of titles in the public domain/available as free downloads, save for a copy of the Roman Breviary we use when travelling (Universalis); but because everything we have is held in common, there are some strange juxtapositions. The content of the elibrary is ever-changing as titles are added or deleted, but what can you tell from the following current list? What is your own list like? Care to share?

The Holy Bible (of course)
The Koran
The Aeneid (Latin)
Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas
rather a lot of poetry, which is maddening to read  because the text isn’t properly formatted
Confessions of St Augustine (Pusey’s translation)
Newman’s Apologia
Rider Haggard: She
Dante’s Divine Comedy (English)
Stendhal: Le Rouge et le Noir
Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress
Austen: the complete works
Thomas Browne: Religio Medici
Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of the Grotesque
Cicero: Treatises on Friendship
rather a lot of detective fiction . . .
Richard Forde: Handbook for Travellers in Spain
Borrow: The Bible in Spain
Chesterton: The Man who was Thursday

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Emmaus Moments

We read the Emmaus gospel twice during Eastertide, once during the Octave and again today, the third Sunday of Easter, but life is full of Emmaus moments: times when the veil is lifted and we see, as if for the first time, something that has been there all along but of which we had previously been unaware. These mini-revelations can become epiphanies, revelations of God himself.

Yesterday I went into the greenhouse to check on my seedlings and looked up to see the raindrops falling from the roof — beautiful iridescent drops of water, falling as thickly as those Julian of Norwich saw falling from the eaves of her house so many centuries ago. She likened them, if you remember, to herring scale, but what she was referring to were the drops of blood that fell from Christ’s head as he hung on the Cross. If you look, even here, on a rainy day in a quiet English village, you can can ‘see his blood upon the rose/and in the stars the glory of his eyes’. Emmaus moments are many.

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That Vatican Blogmeet Again

I suspect that by now anyone interested in the historic Bloggers’ Meeting at the Vatican on 2 May 2011 will have found links a-plenty. In case you haven’t, you can listen to all the audio files here (about half-way down the page). The best address, in my opinion, was given by Elizabeth Scalia, (a.k.a.The Anchoress), here, and the best post-meeting reflection by Anna Arco here. If it’s photos you are after, I suggest you look here or at the video on romereports.com. The live-streaming of the event was not wholly successful because of inadequate bandwidth. (Indeed, I appeared to be in a wi-fi blackspot as I was unable to get Twitter to load during the meeting.) I couldn’t attend the alternative meeting the day after organized by Hilary White, nor can I go to the London meeting today about forming a Guild of Catholic Bloggers. However, the internet is awash with information and comment, and even a cursory look through the Twitterstream #vbm11 gives  a lively idea of what was happening as it happened.

So, what’s to say that hasn’t been said? First, I must record my personal gratitude for having been encouraged to apply to attend, my delight at having been one of the lucky 150 invited and my very great thanks for the sponsorship which made acceptance possible. It was wonderful to meet bloggers who previously were only names, although there was far too little time to talk. There was such a buzz in the aula.

Richard Rouse and others had put a lot of hard work into organizing the event at short notice. We tend to take for granted such things as simultaneous translation, but a little note of congratulation should go out to the translator who, without missing a beat, rendered Brazilian Portuguese into excellent English, even though it was not on the official ‘language menu’. Communication was truly the order of the day.

The first panel provided the most interesting talks. All were from thoughtful bloggers who reflected on such diverse topics as the nature of the blogosphere (e.g. the problem of charity and promotion of the ego) and ways of engaging people with faith (Fr Roderick Vonhogen must be one of the most media-savvy people in the Church). The second panel said some good things, although the language used tended to be more impersonal and abstract: definitely less blog-like! It was encouraging to hear about the Vatican’s plans for a new web portal and more creative use of social media; encouraging, too, to hear it stated that bloggers perform a valuable and valued service within the Church.

For me, the most remarkable thing was that the meeting took place at all. It reinforced my sense of the universalism of the Petrine ministry. However, I did come away with some questions.

I think bloggers fall into two categories: those who are in some sense professional journalists or otherwise ‘appointed’ to blog, and those who are enthusiastic amateurs (like Digitalnun). Some of the questions raised at the meeting about accreditation and copyright struck me as being of more concern to professionals than to amateurs. Those who blog in order to report news (or rumours) have a different take on things from those of us who merely share our bathtub thoughts about this and that. I don’t feel I need or want accreditation, nor any kind of policing (loyalty to the Church and to my monastic community would, I trust, prevent my straying too far into heterodoxy). I suppose I am suspicious of ‘badges’. I am not a  Catholic blogger but a blogger who is Catholic, as likely to blog about dogs as dogma. Most bloggers are responsible people who do their homework before launching forth into the blogosphere with their opinions, and I think the Vatican officials who spoke duly acknowledged that fact. But, and it is quite a big ‘but’, I did occasionally wonder whether the distinction being made between the institutional Church (as represented by the Vatican officials) and the rest of us was perhaps a little too clear-cut. We are all members of the one Body. Maybe that is what we need to emphasize.

And for the rest . . .

My two days in Rome were different from any I’d experienced before. I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the crowds who had gathered for the beatification were beginning to disperse but public transport was at a standstill. It was a long hard slog with my luggage from the Piazza Cavour, where the airport shuttle left me, to Paulo III, on the heights of the Via Aurelia; but the frequent need to stop and draw breath (Rome is not kind to people with sarcoid) made for some lovely exchanges. A beautiful Mexican stopped and chatted away and a lovely threesome from the U.S.A., grandmother, mother and baby, helped me drag my case the last couple of hundred yards.

Rome itself is not very welcoming to Benedictine nuns in full habit, especially on their own. The Swiss Guard salute rather endearingly as one passes by, but some of the locals go out of their way to be unpleasant. Is that why so many nuns and sisters look rather dour? I don’t know. Meals are another problem: cafes and restaurants are O.K. if one is with someone but can be awkward if one isn’t. If hungry, I usually opt for something from a supermarket or, if there isn’t time, from one of the street stalls. The trouble is, I can hear my grandmother saying, ‘No lady ever eats in the street’, which oughtn’t to worry me but does. Funny, that.

However, while in Rome I was able to see D. Margaret at Sta Cecilia (for the first time in at least six years); Abbot Cuthbert and Bro. Michael from Farnborough and I met in St Peter’s Square, as one does, and went off in search of coffee; and Muriel Sowden and I had a good face-to-face chat, our first since connecting on Facebook.

Really the best part of my visit came at the end, when Sr Lucy FMA bore me off to their Generalate and I was overwhelmed with kindness. It was lovely to be in a big community again, and I must say I was very impressed by their spirit. Sr Lucy could not have been more considerate. Finding that my flight out was not due until the afternoon, she arranged to take me to Subiaco for morning Mass and an unforgettable tour with Sr Mary and Sr Connie, devoid of tourists (!). It was immensely moving to kneel in St Benedict’s cave and be able to pray there for Benedictines the world over, and all our oblates and friends. Finally, I was driven to the airport.

It was a short visit but one I shall remember always with affection and gratitude. The gifts God chooses to give are always so much better than those one seeks for oneself. Thank you, Sr Lucy.

 

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An Email Avalanche

Digitalnun is safely back from Rome (as of 10.00 pm last night, after a sticky drive from the airport). Unfortunately, the smartphone we got to try to keep up with emails while away was unable to secure enough coverage to do the job so there are currently 577 emails sitting in the inboxes of the accounts I myself usually deal with (not to mention the spam folder.) A few are resends of previously sent emails, suggesting that the autoresponder didn’t work (or was ignored?); some are sent knowing I was to be away and saying that they are for me to deal with on my return (please don’t do that again if you can help it: the mail programme buckles after the first 300 and as the emails and their attachments are now all on the smartphone too, I am quietly tearing my wimple this morning.)

I will work through the emails as quickly as I can but, as I’m sure you understand, there are other urgent matters also clamouring for attention, so please bear with me. If you don’t hear for a few days, please don’t email again. We are not being rude, we just don’t have the nunpower to deal with everything instantly.

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Vatican Bloggers’ Conference

The Wonders of Technology

This afternoon 150 bloggers, of whom Digitalnun is one, will be meeting at the Vatican for the first ever formal meeting on Vatican territory. The programme has been published in outline and you will  find links to all the bloggers and their blogs here.

I hope you will join me for some live blogging from the Vatican Bloggers’ Conference on Monday, 2 May, beginning about 2.45 pm British Summer Time. If there is no livestream (video) but at least adequate wi-fi, as promised, Digitalnun should be able to provide some feedback from the Conference as it takes place. There may also be updates on Twitter (@Digitalnun using the #vbm11 hashtag) or on the Digitalnun Facebook page. However, there are sure to be bloggers with better resources and wittier insights who will be blogging, tweeting and Facebooking from the Conference; so it is worth doing a preliminary check to see what is available first.

Please pray for the success of the meeting, and perhaps even for Digitalnun’s ability to cope with the CoveritLive software using nothing more powerful than an iPod Touch! Just click the link to take part (you can comment, too, in real time.)

Click Here

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