Assisted Dying Bill: Do You Trust the Government?

Discussion of the Present Bill

Discussion of the proposed changes to the law envisaged by the Assisted Dying 2021 Bill, now facing its second reading in the House of Lords, has been fairly predictable. Lawyers, philosophers, religious leaders, medical practitioners, disabled advocacy groups, politicians and others have all had something to contribute on both sides of the argument. There have been harrowing tales of people dying in agony, usually from the perspective of a near relative, distressed at what they were witnessing; eloquent pleas to be freed from pain coming from the very sick; haunting articulation of vulnerability from those who fear that allowing assisted dying might easily lead to pressure to comply with another’s decision or, worse still, have no power of deciding for oneself at all. At its best, the discussion has been honest and respectful; at its worst, it has degenerated into abuse of those who think differently.

Trust

One of the big questions that has often been glossed over, however, is that of trust. Not just trust in the medical profession or one’s nearest and dearest but trust in the Government and its readiness to protect its citizens. Having seen the shameful way in which the present British Government placed elderly and vulnerable care home residents at risk in the earlier stages of the COVID outbreak, I am not as sanguine as I might once have been about the ‘robust measures’ to be put in place if the bill becomes law. Does no one really think that if it were to a government’s economic or political advantage, it might use the system, so to say, to rid itself of some non-productive elements (people, to you and me)?

Manipulation of Facts

One of the consequences of climate change is that pressure on resources increases. Who would like to guess whether that might also add another ingredient to the mix? Encouraging Uncle Henry to take the honourable route out of life when he is old and frail is one thing, perhaps, but resentment of the elderly and sick stirred up in recent years, especially during lockdown, has wider implications. Have you noticed that death from COVID is not often presented straightforwardly as a COVID death but given some interesting qualifications. We are usually told that the deceased had ‘underlying health conditions,’ as though that made his/her death less important, less of a human tragedy. There is some manipulation of facts here in the way the figures are presented but we seem to be deadened to its significance in other areas of life — or am I being unduly cynical?

A Personal View

You will understand that I do not think of human beings as disposable items and am personally unhappy with both the underlying premiss and some of the concrete proposals of this bill. I have argued the same when discussing some previous iterations of this bill. That is not my purpose this morning. I pray for those debating the bill; I pray for those affected by its outcome — in other words, for all of us. Whatever decision is made in this instance, many of the questions the bill touches upon, including rights over one’s body and the role of the State, have far-reaching implications, but we are not always as wise as we would like to be.

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Learning to Be Grateful

Yesterday was, for me as for everyone else, a mixture of good and bad. Towards evening, as I did a quick check of our social media accounts, a little worm of envy and discontent began to surface. How much I’d like to be able to go for a walk, but I can’t because of my illness; wouldn’t it be nice to have a brief holiday and enjoy new scenes, but it’s out of the question; what wouldn’t I give to be able to clear my in-tray or get people to respond to requests, but it’s not going to happen. You know the kind of thing that occurs when we focus on ourselves and can compile your own list of ‘if onlys’. At bottom, they are all about ourselves and what’s ‘wrong’ or missing in our life, even when we try to convince ourselves that we are being selfless and desiring some good for another. Parents know only too well how easy it is to fall into the trap of wanting to influence their children’s decisions, and it is not unknown for those who don’t have children to think they have the solution to all the world’s problems. (Have a look at Twitter if you don’t believe me.) It is not enough, however, to be aware of the dangers: we have to do something about them.

Last night I decided to take myself in hand and think about some of the good things that had happened during the day. I shared some of them on Twitter and was heartened by the response of others. Some who replied I know to be very ill or living in difficult circumstances, but they were still acknowledging what was good in their lives and giving thanks. Learning to be grateful in a culture that often seems selfish and self-absorbed isn’t easy, but it is essential. The most important act of a Christian society is eucharist, giving thanks, but how often we dissociate that from our everyday lives. Perhaps, when we examine our conscience at night, we should not only ask ourselves where our desire has been, where we have failed or sinned, but also where we have received grace, where we have reason to be grateful. We might be surprised by the results.

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Enriching the World: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The so-called Passport Photo: c. 1938

The feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) which we celebrate today always produces a mixture of complicated emotions in me. I must have read almost everything she ever published after she became a nun, admire her deeply, yet confess to being disconcerted by her. Is it the philosopher in her I find difficult, the intensity of her sanctity, or something else altogether? I do not know, but this morning, when everything was dark when the community got up and some of the news darker still, I remembered the hope that sustained her to the last in Auschwitz, the glimmer of light she never failed to see, and the courage with which she and her sister Rosa went to their end. She is a saint of the Holocaust who combines in her own person both Jewish and Christian traditions, whose humanity contrasts with the inhumanity of the regime that killed her.

We need saints who challenge us out of our comfortable mediocrity. At first sight, St Teresa Benedicta is impossible of emulation. But is she really? Aren’t we all called to live as well as we can, whatever our circumstances? She did not have the long, quiet life in Carmel she might have expected, but she embraced the life she was actually given and, in so doing, has enriched the world — not just the ‘religious’ part of it but the whole of it. We are called to do the same.

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Is the Church Getting It Right — or Getting It Wrong?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my readership has grown older and greyer. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. I’m growing older and greyer myself and begin to appreciate better than before how much is owed to those who just ‘get on with things’ and are not in themselves particularly scintillating. Blogging is no longer as popular as it was for diffusing ideas and inviting debate but the format suits me and is more manageable than most alternatives. The unease I am voicing this morning therefore comes hedged with qualifications. I admit my own ignorance and the difficulty of judging a situation that is, by its very nature, known only partially and imperfectly. I recognize that only a very small part of the Church (the part that reads this blog) is likely to respond and that its demographic is not representative of the Church as a whole. So, I write as a Catholic, of a certain age and background, living in the West, more specifically England, with its unique experience of Catholicism, and heavily influenced by my interests in history and theology. But the question I ask is of wider significance because it concerns the very nature of the Church and her role in the world.

The question troubling me is, do the current public preoccupations of the Church really help to spread the gospel? Are they, in any meaningful sense, meeting the desire for God? Or does the Church have some other reason for being than leading all to salvation in Christ?

Current Preoccupations of the Church

Sitting where I do, one might think the Church had no other interest than safeguarding regulations (the horse long bolted from that particular stable, I would suggest) and ever more complicated directives concerning COVID prevention, Mass attendance and online liturgies. All too often, this has ended up with a lot of form-filling and the compilation of statistics that a statistician would say revealed nothing of much use or importance.

From Holy Week (yes, Holy Week) until now, here in the monastery we have been working through an endless stream of safeguarding material provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. We agree that safeguarding is important. We have attended courses, adjusted our buildings and grounds, had an independent audit of our arrangements and practices and, crucially no doubt, paid our fee to the safeguarding service. Given our small numbers as enclosed (or cloistered) nuns, the absence of a chaplain and our clear policy of not allowing children to visit unless accompanied by a responsible adult, one might think we pose little risk. But the time we give to these matters is taken from time we might otherwise give to prayer and spreading the gospel, and that not only worries me, it suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church and her missionary character. We are not here to be defensive, surely? What are we defending anyway?

Like many others, I had hoped that the experience of lockdown and the creative way in which many tried to meet its challenges might have led to a profound enrichment of the Church’s missionary endeavour. However, if the anecdotal evidence I have received is to be believed, many clergy are simply sighing with relief that things can go back to normal (i.e what was understood to be normal before the pandemic began) though there is some anxiety about those who have been ‘lost’ to the Church and decided they are not returning to their parish for worship — or to make the financial contributions on which the parish relies. But is anyone asking why people have gone from their parishes?

Public Utterances and Public Spats

Ask anyone in this country what they know of the Catholic Church and one is likely to get some shocked references to abuse and cover-ups and perhaps an observation or two about the Latin Mass and the pope’s hostility to it. Neither is exactly the whole truth, but if people bother about churchy things at all, that is what they are likely to come up with. The very lame response to abuse and official attempts to mitigate its awfulness have not been impressive. There is a sense, which many Catholics share, that the Church is not really facing up to the sin in our midst; and in any case, is there no other narrative to be told other than one of regret and apology?

We have sometimes been asked to apologize for abuse committed in Ireland by religious sisters with whom we have no connection other than membership of the same Church. In vain do I say, it was wrong, we pray for those who have suffered (and those who caused the suffering), that it happened before we were born, we are doing our best to ensure that nothing of the same can ever happen again. But it is not enough. For some, the narrative of abuse and cover-up has become the whole narrative of the Church. What is not always recognized is the fact that, by and large, we have let it become so. Yes, we have let others set the agenda, and I think we may have got it wrong.

One consequence of this, not always sufficiently appreciated, is the effect on the morale of many clergy and their reluctance, amounting in some cases to crippling fear, to go out to others. Parishioners may lament the loss of the pastoral visit; some of the clergy are questioning whether the pastoral visit is simply going to end in tears (for the priest). An awkwardness has been introduced that need not be there. A wise bishop, alert to the needs of priests and people, can do much to help; but I wonder how many are.

The constant spats about Pope Francis’ decisions, even his legitimacy as pope, enthrall some sections of the Catholic Church and provide useful copy to online journalists and media types. Often those who are most vociferous are most ignorant, presenting as fact what is merely opinion, and opinion based on an inadequate knowledge of the sources. This applies to both left and right, liberals and conservatives, all who see themselves as being right when everyone else is wrong. What comes across, therefore, is a Church bitterly divided, more intent on scoring points than seeking truth, not a place where sinners will be made righteous through the experience of love and compassion but where the self-appointed righteous exclude all who are not like them.

A Harsh Judgement

I’m sure many will think what I have written is harsh and arrogant, that I am guilty of the very faults and shortcomings I see in others. But isn’t that the point? We are all, to some extent, blind and deaf. I do not believe that the Lord will ever abandon his Church, but I do think we are in danger of forgetting that is is his Church, that we have a mission to perform, and that currently we are not making a very good fist of it. Perhaps if we were to spend a few moments today thinking about what first drew us to Christ, to what changed for ever when we said ‘yes’ to him, the way ahead would be clearer. I’m sure it would be much more attractive to others also.

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Words, Words, Words

It ironic that the writings of St Peter Chrysologus, whose name means ‘golden-worded’, should have almost entirely disappeared. We have 176 short homilies to justify his alternative title of ‘Doctor of Homilies’. Those I’ve read are refreshing: simple, direct and covering important topics like the Apostles’ Creed and fundamental doctrines of the Church. Some find him surprisingly ‘modern’. He advocates daily Communion, for example, and is good at explaining scripture. Yet it is his silence, what he does not say, that attracts me. He was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century so must have seen and heard much into which those of us who are not angelic long to look. Apparently, he got on well with Leo the Great and was influential at the imperial court. Fifteen hundred years later, the Churches of both East and West continue to commemorate his sanctity.

Old Saints: New Saints

I often think that these old saints, who inhabited a world and enjoyed a ‘world view’ very different in many respects from our own, are a better guide to holiness than some more recent models. Again, it is the silence that is so eloquent. The sayings of some of our more contemporary saints are interminable, endlessly turned into holy sound bytes which are neither profound nor helpful, merely irritating. I leave you to think of a few examples for yourselves, and if you can’t, be assured that you are obviously much holier than I am!

Silence and Restraint in Speech

So, silence: choosing the words to speak and when to say or write them. The monastic tradition puts great emphasis on this restraint, this disciplining of the self. Indeed it goes further, valuing physical silence for its own sake, for the way it opens us up to God and other people, for its role in making us wise and compassionate. It is not difficult to see how words are often abused or silence undervalued in today’s society. The trouble is, once we start distancing ourselves from this observable fact with references to concepts like ‘today’s society,’ we are apt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. We suggest that we are helpless, constrained by circumstances; but are we really — or are we being a little lazy?

Personal Choice

In Britain today I see and read much that makes me cringe — and I am not referring solely or even mainly to what passes for politics or takes place in social media. I can do very little about its worst excesses; but I can do something about my own words, my own silence. The point is, do I want to? Surely someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer, the Word made flesh, cannot be indifferent to the tiny words we use every day, to the creative silence that gives birth to the Mystery? Or can we? Perhaps a few minutes thinking about that question would yield an unexpected harvest of self-knowledge and renewed purpose.

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Arbiter of All Things? Me, Of Course!

I am refusing to be drawn on the subject of Traditionis Custodes for reasons I’ve given in the past about needing to read, pray and reflect before responding to documents that stir the emotions (e.g. see this post about how to read an encyclical, though the document published yesterday is not an encyclical). I’ve also switched off comments for the links I’ve posted in Facebook and on this particular blog post — not because I am opposed to people expressing their views, far from it, but because among the instant reactions there is always a lot of tit-for-tat I don’t want to get involved in. Note that phrase: I don’t want to get involved in. It is my choice, my decision. If it sounds arrogant, so be it. I am the arbiter of all things, in this blog anyway.

The Carmelites of Compiégne

The Carmelites of Compiègne whose martyrdom we celebrate today, and the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai imprisoned alongside them (see, for example, this post) probably did not want to get involved in the French Revolution, either. But they did, and they acquitted themselves more than honourably, though at the time I daresay comparatively few knew very much about them. I have often wondered what they themselves felt and thought. What were their ideas of beauty, for example? How did they like to see the liturgy performed? I am speculating here, but did the Benedictines and the Carmelites have rather different experiences of Mass and the choral office? Their origins, their backgrounds, their spiritualities as we would call them today, even their financial circumstances, were different; and as an erstwhile historian myself, I would expect that to be reflected in their approach to monastic/contemplative life.

The Debate about Traditionis Custodes

I think we will find that much of the debate that follows on the publication of yesterday’s Traditionis Custodes will reflect some, at least, of the following:

• a personal, probably highly subjective, view of what is beautiful. That is often a ‘killer’ factor. Once we assume that our own preferences are universal, it can be difficult to see another’s point of view.

• a partial, possibly not always well-informed, awareness of history and the complexity of liturgical development. That can be difficult to handle. It is not only a question of fact (sometimes extremely difficult, even impossible, to establish) but, more importantly, of interpretation.

• a ‘feeling’ about Vatican II and what it intended. Older readers will probably understand better than younger ones what I mean by this.

• a personal opinion of Pope Francis.

The Place of the Personal in this Debate

The first, the argument about beauty, is one I have engaged in many times. My years in the Stanbrook Abbey Press taught me that its austere and restrained ideals did not appeal to everyone. Where I sought simplicity and paring back, others preferred elaboration and detail. Never the twain shall meet, it seems. As for a personal opinion of Pope Francis, the less said the better because so much of it seems to be polarised.

I am sure you will understand why I urge prayer and reflection at this point. Fortunately, as Bro Dyfrig BFdeB will assure you, no one listens to me anyway, so the suggestions I make above are principally for myself to heed. -;) (It is International Emoji Day, so using one is in the spirit of the times, no?) Whatever our own opinion, let us pray for the unity of the Church, and especially for those who are baffled and hurt or using publication of Traditionis Custodes for an agenda of their own.

Links (opening in new tabs)

There is an official English language translation of Traditionis Custodes here: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20210716-motu-proprio-traditionis-custodes.html

and of the accompanying letter to the bishops here:
https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2021/documents/20210716-lettera-vescovi-liturgia.html

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The Holy Abbots of Cluny

The feast of the holy abbots of Cluny rarely excites the imagination of anyone outside the cloister. A few liturgists may perhaps refer to them in passing, those who know something of the story of Abelard and Heloise will probably smile at the mention of Peter the Venerable, but, by and large, they are all ‘long ago and far away’. Even my attempt to sketch a pen-portrait of four of them on Twitter this morning may have confused or bored as many as it enlightened. The trouble is, we are not very good at integrating history into our everyday lives or seeing the relevance of the past to the present. Instead of seeking to understand or explain the cruelties and injustices of Black Slavery, for example, we prefer to do away with any of its relics, from statues to church monuments, because that lets us off the hook of really engaging  with the subject. We all know slavery of any kind is wrong, so we don’t have to bother with why it is wrong. Unfortunately, that weakens our ability to judge other matters where decisions about rightness and wrongness are not so clear-cut. We forget that the argument is part of the answer, and the way in which we conduct that argument is an intrinsic part of working the answer itself out.

The abbots we commemorate today — Odo, Maiolus, Odilo, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — were not weak men, far from it, but we do not think of them as controversialists. St Odo, for instance, was particularly severe on the use of rough or judgemental language by his monks. I do not imagine, for example, that he would have endorsed the current trend among some Catholics to impugn the faith of public figures like Pope Francis or President Biden on the basis of their own understanding of Catholicism. He knew — as we are often reluctant to admit — that judgement in such matters is God’s business unless we have been given explicit authority, and even then, there are all kinds of caveats to be observed. It is no accident, I suppose, that his devotion to Our Lady was to Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Peter the Venerable became involved in many of the hot topics of his day, but he was a patient man, who knew that finding out what another thought or considered true was essential to opening up a dialogue with them. That, I suspect, is why he had the Quran translated into Latin rather than assuming he already knew what Muslims believed and taught. 

You notice how careful I have been in my use of verbs: imagine, suspect, think, suppose. That is because no matter how well we may think we know the people of the past, to attribute ideas and sentiments to them is a risky business. We may have good grounds for thinking as we do, but we do not have certainty. That applies as much to the present as to the past, though most of us forget that when we use social media!

One of the things that has always attracted me to Cluny is precisely that element of not knowing everything, of being ready to let God be God in all things, while still being firm and clear about the values we hold. By a happy co-incidence, today we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the kind of person the abbot should be, RB 2. May I suggest it has something to teach us all? Something the holy abbots of Cluny grasped very well.

N.B. If this post is not to your taste, you will find at least five more on the holy abbots of Cluny in this blog.

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Easter Wednesday 2021

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus: Provenance unknown, possibly from York

There are a number of dream-like elements in Luke”s account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). A stranger suddenly joins the disciples as they trudge wearily along. Something stops them recognizing him, just as something stopped Mary Magdalene recognizing him in yesterday’s gospel. Even Jesus’ questions and explanations of scripture leave them unable to make the connection. At table the stranger takes on the role of host, breaks bread and shares it with them. The evangelist goes on to say

And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’  They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.

The disciples are not permitted to linger in the presence of the Lord, any more than Mary was, but must proclaim the resurrection. Jesus, too, is not to linger with the disciples, though his mission is more hidden and will not be complete until he has returned to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit (cf John 16.5-16). That is clear enough, but why this mystery, what I have called the dream-like elements in the story?

I think myself it is not only extremely good story-telling, which makes a profound impact on the listener, it is also a way of making us aware of the change the resurrection has wrought. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. The newness of life we celebrate takes us where we have never been before. It transforms everything, even the old and familiar. In other words, what the disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus and at table with their mysterious guest is an experience every Christian shares: an invitation to share in the life of God himself. As the priest prays whenever Mass is celebrated, ‘May we become sharers in his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ Amen. Alleluia.

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The Perils of Good Advice

We all love to give others the benefit of our advice. That hard-won wisdom, that special insight, the experience we, and we alone, have gained, how wonderful to share it all with others! The trouble is, anyone whose advice is worth having will probably wait to be asked but far too many of us proffer our advice unasked. Take social media, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned something, the planting of a new hedge say (species already decided upon), and received in return masses of alternative suggestions, including plans so vast and expensive that I’m left wondering whether Twitter or Facebook or whatever is inhabited solely by multi-millionaires. As nuns, I think we often come in for more than our fair share of this kind of advice, especially from those who assume we know nothing and need to be guided. There is, however, a more perilous form of good advice, and I’m sorry to say nuns can be just as guilty of giving it as anyone else: spiritual advice.

Spiritual Advice

I come from a community that has always been chary of giving spiritual advice and expressly rejects the role of spiritual director for any of its members. The reason for that is partly historical, partly a recognition that none of us has the qualities required of a spiritual director. Others do; we don’t. Occasionally, I ask myself whether some of the posts in this blog overstep the mark, but as any advice given is general, not particular, and is closely linked to scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict, I can quieten my conscience. Please note, however, that the three things I have cited — scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict — all have an objective character. We may try to put a personal interpretation on them but they are independent entities, so to say, to be respected and understood, not forced into a mould that is inherently untruthful.

Classical Monasticism

Earlier this week I wrote a short post about what I called classical monasticism. Discussion, both online and off, has been interesting. Those who live in traditional monasteries have, by and large, shared some of my concerns about attempts to call ‘monastic’ anything anyone chooses to think monastic. Others have argued that my understanding of monasticism is too narrow and given me quite a lot of advice about how we should change things here at Howton Grove. Oddly enough, these suggestions have come from those who’ve never actually been here or, as far as I know, lived in the kind of monastery I’ve lived in for almost 40 years. I have thanked them for their advice, thought and prayed about it (the Holy Spirit, after all, has a way of shaking up our ideas) and then dismissed it as being based on some serious misconceptions about what monastic life is and what it is intended to achieve in the lives of those who live it. I hope that is not arrogant of me, but what is a caution to me may be to you as well.

A Warning

Do not trust every spiritual guide. Do not take all advice as being good, especially as we draw closer to Holy Week. The devil still masquerades as an angel of light, by which I mean that what appears good on the surface may not be as good underneath. I believe that if we cling to the scriptures, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church (and I mean the Church’s tradition, not the different versions of it some have concocted for themselves), we cannot go far wrong. And that, my friends, is my good advice for you!

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