Acts of Kindness

The theme for this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today, is Acts of Kindness. It was set by the people of Malta, who famously treated the shipwrecked Paul with exemplary kindness. As I mentioned in my post of 16 January, there are a range of resources that can be downloaded from Churches Together. I don’t want to duplicate anything said there, but I think it is always helpful to ask ourselves what we mean by being kind, really kind. Too often we seem to limit it to not deliberately giving pain, rather like Newman’s definition of a gentleman, but the word itself should provide a clue, particularly if we look at its origins. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another, to be of the same lineage, the same family. We don’t often use the word in that sense these days, but perhaps we should. To acknowledge our common humanity and the unity we already have by virtue of our baptism into Christ is, for Christians, an excellent starting-point for what we are about this week. Random acts of kindness may be popular in some circles, but there is nothing random about those practised by Jesus’ disciples. We are his Body; we have a purpose, and He is with us always until it is fulfilled.

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Holy Innocents 2019

This morning I re-read some of my earlier posts about this feast. That for 2017 was hard-hitting in its statistics and left me with a feeling of despondency. Things are no better now than when I wrote. In fact, they have got worse. There are more children said to be living in poverty in the U.K., for example, than there were three years ago. World-wide, there are more children being aborted, exploited, trafficked or exiled than ever before. Yet the Church continues to assert the importance of this feast. Is it merely a reminder that the defenceless will suffer because of those who think they don’t matter? A kind of liturgical corrective to the sentimentality of the secular celebrations of Christmas to which we are exposed? Or is it something more, something that goes deeper, into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation?

I think we can only understand this feast by looking at Christ’s birth, an event that is located in place and time, within the specifics of a particular family. One consequence of this is to change our notion of what matters and our responsibility for others. Christ’s coming into the world means we can no longer plead indifference about the importance of individuals, even those we have never met. Everyone matters. There isn’t a single human being God has not looked at with love, so who are we to argue or act otherwise? The massacre of those young Jewish boys two thousand years ago is an event in time, with its own particularities, but it is also an event that transcends time because it is for ever present in the mind and heart of God. As such, it is both a comfort and a challenge. A comfort, because it assures us that God’s love never ends; a challenge, because it demands a response from us. While there is any child who goes to bed hungry, thirsty, or exploited, any child who is not allowed to be born or live with dignity, we have failed to meet that challenge. We have failed to recognize Christ when we saw him.

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St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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Christmas Day 2019

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

This icon of Our Lady of Consolation reminds us that Christmas is never without its sorrows. The tear on Mary’s cheek recalls that poignant medieval lyric in which Christ’s death is lamented in deeply personal terms. Our salvation did not come cheap:

Lovely ter of lovely eye,
Why dost thou me so wo?
Sorful ter of sorful eye,
Thou brekst myn herte a-two.

We rejoice in the most perfect of all gifts, the gift of our Saviour Jesus Christ, but we also acknowledge the grief and sadness of the world in which we live. We may be mourning the loss of someone we love or grieving the violence that has killed so many in Burkina Faso and Syria, or there may be some more private sorrow that weighs us down. But still we rejoice. The bitter irony of the birth of the Prince of Peace coinciding with a fresh outbreak of war is not lost on us, nor is the seeming inability of our leaders to work together to end poverty and homelessness and all the evils we regard as insupportable. But still we rejoice. We rejoice because we must. Destruction, negativity, hopelessness is not the whole story and never can be. With the coming of Christ into the world, God has bound himself to us in a way that can never be broken. He has become what we are — for ever and ever. If we let that truth sink in, we can indeed find cause for joy.

On behalf of the community, may I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and the assurance of our prayers. Thank you for your engagement and support during the past year.

If you are struggling with serious illness, you may find something useful in this earlier post about celebrating Christmas with cancer: https://is.gd/BCZDup There are also several posts about the Nativity which can be found using the search box in the right-hand sidebar.

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On a Dark Night

I come from a monastic community that has always been extremely reticent about prayer and spiritual experience. D. Catherine Gascoigne, the first abbess of Cambrai, said all she wanted to say about prayer in half a dozen sentences; her contemporary, D. Gertrude More, was the exception that proves the rule — she had more of the prolixity of Fr Augustine Baker, her teacher. It remains a community joke that no one should ever write her spiritual autobiography. How fortunate we are that St John of the Cross was untroubled by such restraints, though I dare to say that I think many misunderstand him or read him superficially. His teaching on prayer is wise, deep and immensely challenging. Even after a lifetime of trying to pray, I am not sure that I quite ‘get’ him. I can revel in the beauty of his poetry, shudder at the way he was treated by his confrères, delight in his courage and the anecdotes we have about him, understand some of what he is saying, but there remains a distance, a degree of unknowing, which not only proves I was right to become a Benedictine rather than a Carmelite, but also that there are many ways of praying which, despite having much in common, also have their differences. We have to find the one that suits us, that is intended for us, and it can be a long and hard task to discover what it is.

The hardness of the task must not put us off, however. A few years ago I tried to express what I mean by that, and what I wrote then strikes me as still being valid. The darkness of Advent is a preparation for the coming of Light, just as the darkness of prayer is a preparation for the coming of the Giver of prayer, God himself; and the gifts that God gives are never intended for ourselves alone. They are to be shared:

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rock-face for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent, Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

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A Forgiving God?

On the memoria of St Ambrose the ‘godly internet’ will be awash with a single quotation: ‘No one heals himself by wounding another.’ Very few, however, will read what St Ambrose has to say in his treatise, Concerning Repentance, from which it is taken. You, dear reader, can, and in English, too, if you follow this link: St Ambrose on Repentance. If you do, you will find something that may make you think about two things that are very important this Advent.

First, Ambrose wasn’t judgemental in the way that we habitually use that word. He knew what he believed and was anxious to win the Novatians back to Catholic unity, so he advocated gentleness and patience rather than blistering attacks on the integrity of others. He could only do that because he believed in the forgiveness of God. I sometimes wonder whether we do. Do we really believe that others can repent, and that God’s mercy will embrace their desire to be reconciled? Some of the ‘debates’ taking place in the Church and the fierce and unforgiving language in which they are expressed might make an outsider question that. We are often more demanding than God, more certain that everyone should believe as we do — in short, more exacting, less forgiving.

Second, forgiveness is personal. During Advent it is important that we should, if possible, make our confession and be reconciled with God and one another. The sacrament of confession isn’t an endorsement of sin, as some maintain. We genuinely do have to repent, to seek forgiveness, be prepared to make amends and avoid sin for the future. Sometimes we will be asked by our confessor to go to someone we have injured and say ‘sorry’ if we haven’t already done so. That can be very hard, especially if the person we’re apologizing to is in no mood to forgive. We have to believe in the reality of grace before we can allow God to forgive in us, or accept forgiveness ourselves.

So, today’s Advent challenge is very simple. Am I willing to forgive and be forgiven? Do I believe in a God who forgives or do I not? Will I make my confession, or will I refuse the coming of God into my life?

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Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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Head Faith; Heart Faith; No Faith; Advent

One of the things that perplexes me is the relationship between what we might call ‘head faith’ — the articulation of belief variously referred to as doctrine or dogma  — and ‘heart faith’ — the principles by which we actually live, usually fewer in number and often very difficult to put into words. 

I am on record as saying that I think there is nothing more exciting than orthodox Catholicism, and I mean it. No theologian myself, I can claim to have read quite a lot of other people’s theology and have found it inspiring because of the light it throws on the mysteries of faith. Read Augustine’s De Trinitate with a little modern physics in mind and suddenly the Church’s teaching about the Blessed Trinity explodes into life. Even the most ‘difficult’ subjects prompt further efforts to understand, and one ends up on one’s knees, lost in adoration and wonder. But I would be the first to admit that this is ‘head faith’: exciting, stretching one’s mind, but not necessarily at the forefront of our practice of loving and serving the Lord. To take the example of the Blessed Trinity again, what I believe about the Trinity makes me read and pray but does not always translate into virtuous action. It does not make me kinder or more patient, nor do I think I will lie on my death-bed, if I am granted a death-bed, questioning whether my belief in the Trinity was accurate in all respects. I am much more likely to be worrying about my ‘heart faith’ — what I made of the opportunities given to me; how I lived my vocation as a Christian and, more specifically, as a Benedictine; how I treated other people created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, how I translated all that theological eloquence into discipleship.

Let me say at once that there is no opposition between ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’: both are necessary. Like Martha and Mary they represent different aspects of a single truth. I would never agree, for example, that it doesn’t really matter what we believe provided we have some generalised goodwill, nor that we can pick and choose among the doctrines of the Church and still call ourselves Catholic. That is one reason why I maintain that what we believe about the Church is more important than many recognize. I would always argue that unless we can say that we believe what the Church teaches is true, we are far from a Catholic understanding of ecclesiology. But that isn’t what determines most of my everyday conduct. That comes from much simpler streams, and possibly yours does also. 

I think trying to be loving and merciful is a better indicator of how far we are willing to co-operate with grace than, say, making barbed comments about what we see as deficiencies in the faith of others. So, for example, slandering or libelling the pope, Cardinal Burke, or whomever we disagree with or simply dislike, is a rather risky undertaking. It sets us up in judgement on those who may, in fact, be more pleasing to God than we are ourselves. It can easily lead to the bitter zeal against which St Benedict warns in RB 72. The trouble is, once we are infected with it, we lose the ability to see clearly and tend to plunge deeper and deeper into anger and bitterness. Again, I stress that trying to be loving and merciful doesn’t mean that we adopt an ‘anything goes’ approach to Christian living, but I do believe that more people are drawn to Christianity by example than are argued into it. If we have got into the habit of condemning the sins or shortcomings of of others, isn’t it time we took a look in the mirror? We may not like what we see; is it any wonder that others don’t, either? And how does God see us? 

Matters can get worse. When we abandon ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’ and regard ourselves as the arbiters of all things we fall into ‘no faith’. I am not talking here of agnostics or atheists but of those who would still say they are Christians but whose lives and attitudes proclaim that they are so in name only. It is much commoner than might be supposed, but we tend to be blind to it in ourselves and only notice it in others. 

‘No faith’ begins with a falling off from prayer but the danger isn’t always obvious: we are too busy doing good works, championing good causes, fussing about details of the liturgy or church furnishings (all good things in themselves) to waste time with God; and, if we don’t waste time with God, we’ll never really get to know him. The next stage is to give up reading. We know scripture pretty well, don’t we, and as to those dull tomes of theology, they are too dry to be of use to anyone, aren’t they? And when we have given up prayer and reading, when we no longer think deeply about what we believe, the Christian community becomes a kind of optional extra. Why bother to go to Mass and endure an uninspiring liturgy in a cold and draughty church that is inhabited by people even more cantankerous than we are? We go on for a while, but there are better things to do with our time. Gradually, ‘no faith’ becomes our default mode, and we become just one more statistic, one more person in whom the light of Christ is almost extinguished.

Why am I saying this now? Soon we shall begin Advent, a time of renewed preparation for the coming of the Lord. In the West it coincides with a season of lavish spending and self-indulgence, making it difficult to concentrate on what Advent is really about. For those who desire to follow Christ, however, Advent provides an opportunity to look at our lives afresh and see what we need to change to welcome him more fully into our lives. It isn’t a penitential season in the way that Lent is a penitential season, but many people prefer to give up chocolate or make some small sacrifice of something or other rather than address the really big things, the things that are obstacles to grace. May I suggest it would be useful to start thinking about Advent now, before the parties and the present-buying begin in earnest? The sketches I have given of ‘head faith’, ‘heart faith’ and ‘no faith’ may not speak to you, but I hope they may suggest a new line to take, a way of thinking about Advent that hadn’t occurred to you before. With the prophet Isaiah, we must prepare a way for the Lord in the desert of our hearts and not be surprised if we find a few stones and other obstacles en route.

One further thought. Every night at Compline we review the events of the day that is past. I have always found the words of the psalmist, ‘My every desire is before thee,’ a good way of taking stock. What have I wanted; what do I want? How does it measure up to what I believe, in my head and in my heart, and how has it influenced or determined what I have done?

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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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