How Much Do We Really Care?

The recent row about Shamima Begum and her baby has highlighted a growing difficulty in our public discourse: the tendency to allow emotion and political opportunism to cloud our thinking. We saw something similar at work in the sad case of Alfie Evans. It is as though we are unable to think through the possible consequences of an action and then make a decision, acknowledging that it is imperfect but that it is also as just and fair as we can make it, taking into account not only the principals but all who are affected by what is decided. In the case of Shamima Begum and her son, the safety of the British public as a whole had to be weighed against her desire to be allowed back into Britain. In the case of little Alfie, the wishes of the parents had to be weighed against differing medical opinions and the resources, both human and technical, of Alder Hey Hospital, with the needs of Alfie himself paramount. Those of us who have never had to make such a decision can only speculate what they must cost those who do. Unfortunately, that does not stop us arguing about what should be done, and sometimes, as I said, we do not bother with any real fact-finding or reflection before we burst into print or its online equivalent, issuing little sound-bytes of opinion that play on people’s emotions rather than serving any useful purpose. How much do we really care if that is how we tackle such morally-complex matters?

Tonight’s vote in the House of Commons will have consequences that last at least a generation, but anyone who has followed the Brexit debate in this country must have doubts about the process as well as its ultimate outcome. Is this truly democracy at work or a mutant variety of it? I myself have been disappointed by the way in which some of our politicians have conducted themselves and have often cringed at assertions/wishes being presented as facts when they are nothing of the sort. We have seen manoeuvering for personal/political advantage, half-truths and an unwillingness to face up to some unpleasant realities that has proved extremely divisive. Whatever is decided tonight is unlikely to end the squabbling or lead to more unity. So, again I ask, do we really care?

It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ we are on. We all have a responsibility to ensure, as far as we are able, that Parliament’s decisions are in the best interests of everyone — which includes the wider world beyond these shores. Some will argue that Britain has no responsibility towards mainland Europe, still less to countries further away, but is that true? We have already seen how what is done in one part of the world affects others, even down to the way in which our rubbish pollutes or our love of cheap fashion exploits. Can we really argue that whatever circle of self-interest we choose to define, be it tribe or nation, that is the limit of our responsibility? Some may, but I can’t; and I would hope anyone reading this would be of the same mind, however much we may differ in our view of other matters.

That leaves us with an almost-dilemma. What can we do about it? I would suggest that when we have thought and prayed and done everything we can by way of action, we are cast back onto prayer again because we know that God can do what we cannot. He sees the whole picture. He writes straight with crooked lines. Trusting God when we are doubtful is hard, but none of us can question either the fact that he cares or the extent to which he is willing to go for our sakes. We have only to look at a crucifix to know that. In the uncertainties of the present, I find that an encouraging as well as challenging thought, don’t you?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Not Speaking Out but Praying

Every day seems to bring further revelations of corruption, abuse or sheer incompetence, both within the Church and outside it. Collectively, we are suffering from an ever-mounting sense of impotence. What can we do about any of it? Even the three-day conference on the protection of minors scheduled to begin at the Vatican tomorrow is being greeted with low expectations. The truth is, whether we are talking about the abuse of power in the Catholic Church or unreal expectations of Brexit negotiations or anything else, the role of the ordinary person seems to be negligible. We simply don’t count.

I believe that is defeatist because it overlooks two very important points. The first is that we have to speak up for what we know, or at least believe, to be true. That can be lonely and difficult, but it is essential. Truth demands no less. The second is that we have to pray — and the prayer we make must engage the whole of our being. We must wrestle with God as Jacob did with the angel throughout the long night of doubt and fear. If we do not, we shall never see the dawn.

I myself feel I have no words left after the most recent allegations of abuse committed against deaf children in the Americas and cover-ups of abuse against religious sisters in Poland. That leaves me with prayer as my only option, so to say. Thank God one does not have to be important or clever or anything else in order to pray. One has only to want to be with God and do his will. Simple, really, for only God can save us from ourselves.

Virtual Vigil
We shall hold a Virtual Vigil tonight between 7.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. for the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Vatican’s meeting on the protection of minors. No set form of readings/prayers. Please join us in spirit if you can.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

It Won’t Go Away

The first email I opened yesterday was a questionnaire from the Conference of Religious with yet more information required for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and a slightly apologetic request for more donations towards legal costs. It was a powerful reminder that IICSA still has a lot of work to do, and those who keep hoping that the subject will somehow ‘go away’ are deluding themselves.

It can be difficult to know how to respond to those who simply condemn everyone with any kind of connection with Catholicism. It can be even harder to know how to respond to those who are more selective in their condemnations but who are (understandably in my view) inclined to be sceptical about the protestations of clergy and religious whose brethren have been found guilty of terrible sins and crimes. It is as though Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are now to be defined in terms of sexual abuse.

I think we need to reflect on that. In my experience, limited though that be, the popular conception of the Church is very far from my own. Where I see love and generosity, glimpses of the transcendent and a holiness that cannot be denied, others see weakness, self-indulgence and a quarrelsome hypocrisy. I am certainly not advocating any kind of PR exercise, but perhaps we should pay more attention to how others see us and try to learn from it. Every Christian, every Catholic, is called to win others to Christ and we cannot do that if we allow the popular narrative to predominate. We need, more than ever before, the grace of conversion. We must become what we claim we are called to be: icons of Christ in a world desperately in need of healing.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Very Young and Very Old (Again)

Yesterday we re-read St Benedict’s challenging chapter on the care of the sick; today he gives us just a few sentences about the very young and the very old, most of which concern food and the times of meals (RB 37). I think that demonstrates his first-hand experience of community life and his sympathy with those who might easily be overlooked as ‘too demanding’. Most of us can remember what it was like to be really, really hungry as youngsters, when we could devour huge plates of food and remain whiplash thin. Some of us may have reached the age when the appetite has to be tempted, or when a delay in regular meal-times causes all kinds of discomfort. Either way, we know that something as basic as food profoundly affects our sense of well-being.

I think RB 37 is a good reminder that we can be too focused on our own agenda to be truly mindful of the needs of others who may be less able than we are to express their views or ask for help. Benedict is ever the realist. Human nature inclines us to be sympathetic to both old and young, he says, but the Rule must still make provision for them (RB 37.1). He knows we can fail those who are weak and defenceless because we don’t really ‘see’ them. This morning I re-read an oldish (July 2018) article in the Independent about the numbers of terminally ill people who are homeless and dying on our streets. We don’t ‘see’ them, either. As our M.P.s and others debate the proposed Brexit exit deal Theresa May has announced, we need to recall that, in the end, abstractions like sovereignty must be enfleshed in the lives of real people; that, whatever decisions are ultimately made, serving the common good may require sacrifice as well as gain. Both young and old have their own special vulnerabilities. A civilized society will not ignore themFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Prisoners of the Past?

The debate about Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for appointment to the U.S.A. Supreme Court has raised questions of wider application, i.e. this post is not about Mr Kavanaugh or his fitness or otherwise for the office for which he is under consideration, it is about how far ‘the child is father of the man.’ In other words, how far back do we go in anyone’s past to assure ourselves of their fitness for office now, and what are the crimes/sins/offences that we judge to be inadmissible?

For example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received a lot of criticism in some quarters because at the age of sixteen he belonged to a Nazi youth organisation. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history would know that it would have been very difficult for him not to belong, and nothing in his subsequent life suggests that he subscribed to Nazi ideology, yet that has not stopped the criticisms. I daresay most of us can look back on the things we said or did when we were teenagers and shudder, without taking into account the political or economic circumstances of the day. But what about when we are older, when we are in our twenties, say? It begins to be less easy to dismiss criticisms of our beliefs or behaviour, and of course, the media have their favourite forms of wrongdoing to castigate. The politicians who smoked pot in their youth, the philanderers, the British Nationalist/Communist Party activists, those who joined weird and whacky cults, we have our suspicions of them all, and the media delight in feeding our suspicions.

Christians believe in the possibility of conversion and the reality of forgiveness, but that does not stop us being hard-headed about the risks associated with certain kinds of behaviour. Someone who takes drugs, for example, or regularly drinks him- or her-self into a stupour is not the person most of us would want to have a finger on the nuclear button. Nor would we want someone with a sense of sexual entitlement to have the power to force himself on another. The trouble is, we have to weigh up what we know of the person we see now with what is disclosed about his/her past and exercise some very delicate judgement.

One of the good things to have come out of the #MeToo movement is the increased openness with which people are acknowledging abuse suffered in the past. One of the not so good things has been a noticeable tendency to vilify those coming forward with their stories. There is a parallel with what is happening in the Catholic Church. The sheer awfulness of the suffering endured by so many is finally being admitted yet, at the same time, there has been a kind of counter-movement by some to minimize the suffering inflicted or apportion blame in such a way that ‘it touches us not. Our withers are unwrung.’ It leaves the rest of us wondering where truth and justice lie.

I myself have a divided mind about how far back in anyone’s past we should go for evidence of unfitness for office, but it is not a question I can ignore any more than you can. In the end, I suppose we have to be pragmatic. If X was a virulent anti-Semite in their youth, have we evidence of a change of heart? If Y was a sexual predator, has their behaviour changed with marriage and family? The one exception I think I would make is that paedophiles and psychopaths do not seem able to change, so I would be very wary indeed of knowingly placing them in situations where they could do harm. None of us wishes anyone to be a prisoner of their past. Equally, none of us wants to have on our conscience suffering we could have prevented.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Sportsmanship and Beyond

No one could accuse me of being ‘sporty’. I can enjoy watching cricket or tennis, but the only games I have taken part in with any real pleasure are croquet, which requires low cunning and dogged persistence, and badminton, which, being fast and furious, usually ended fairly quickly in my defeat. I was, however, brought up in the tradition of being ‘sporting’. With the possible exception of croquet, therefore, (see above), it was impressed upon me at an early age that one must always play fair, accept the umpire’s decision, and applaud one’s victorious opponent as one quit the field. I wonder where some of those old courtesies and rituals have gone. I have no opinion on the Serena Williams v. Naomi Osaka match, for example, other than being horrified by the crowd’s booing of Osaka and Williams’ coldness towards her. The infighting tearing the Conservative party apart has much the same effect on me, as do the Labour party’s endless shiftings on the subject of anti-semitism. It seems our politicians are only interested in securing personal advantage — and don’t mind how they achieve it. The Church is no better and often, in fact, far worse. It all looks rather gloomy. With the decline of sportsmanship has gone a decline in general standards of behaviour. All too often it’s ‘me, me, me’.

There is, however, a ray of light piercing the gloom. The media may concentrate on the unsportsmanlike shenanigans of politicians and celebrities, but we all know lots of ordinary, decent people whose kindness and care for others is manifested daily. Their deeds will never make the headlines, but theirs are the cups of cold water given in Christ’s name or out of sheer human concern that transform life for so many and, goodness, don’t we need them! The Save the Children Fund has estimated that extreme hunger could kill 600,000 children in war zones this year. There have been over a thousand instances of humanitarian aid being blocked by those fighting one another in Syria, Yemen, etc. But I suspect that ordinary, decent people will go on trying to alleviate such situations. They will give aid, brave dangerous areas and refuse to give in. They are not being sporting, they are going far beyond that. If only our politicians and celebrities would take note!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Of Abbots, Obedientiaries and Children in the Rule of St Benedict – part 2

An obedientiary is someone who has received a specific obedience or task to perform in the monastery. Among those mentioned by St Benedict are the

  • prior (effectively the abbot’s deputy or second in command)
  • novice master
  • cellarer (administrator or business manager of the monastery)
  • guestmaster
  • infirmarian (who has care of the sick)
  • doorkeeper

In a small community one person may hold a number of obediences, e.g the prior may also be infirmarian, monastery cook, librarian, habit-maker and what you will. In a larger community, the cellarer, guestmaster and infirmarian will usually have assistants, while some communities also employ lay people to help with various functions. Today, however, I want to look only at those obedientiaries who have dealings with children in the monastery and examine what the Rule says about them.

Children in the monastery
Of course, the first thing to note is that Benedict takes for granted the presence of children in the monastery. He frequently uses the word infans, meaning young person, for those up to fifteen years of age, which roughly corresponds to the time when a Roman youth assumed the toga virilis, and puer or puer parvus, boy, for those younger than that. More rarely he uses the term adolescens, adolescent, or simply iuvens, youth.

In many instances, Benedict may be referring to child oblates, dedicated to the Lord by their parents at an early age, like the young St Bede (cf RB 59), or young people sent to the monastery to get some education. Benedict does not mention schools but from very early times we find evidence of small alumnates. We do know that both monks and nuns have cared for children in their communities for many centuries; and I think ‘care’ is the operative word. For example, Benedict obviously understood that the young appetite is a fierce and demanding beast. In his little chapter on the old and young, he stipulates that the rigour of the Rule as regards food is by no means to apply to them (RB 37. 2). On the contrary, they are to be shown loving consideration, pia consideratio, and allowed to eat before the regular hours (RB 37. 3), although he doesn’t think the very young, pueres, will necessarily need as much as their elders (RB 39.10).  He is aware that high spirits can sometimes lead to unruliness, so he charges the whole community with responsibility for ensuring that ‘boys up to fifteen years of age are to be carefully watched over by everyone, but with entire moderation and judiciousness’ (RB 70. 4). He goes on to say that anyone who treats the boys with immoderate severity is to undergo the punishment of the Rule (RB 70. 7), quoting Tobit 4.16, ‘Do not do to another what you do not want done to yourself,’ one of his favourite texts. A discordant note may be sounded by Benedict’s acceptance of corporal punishment, for adults as well as children(cf RB 30), but I daresay many of those reading this post will have experienced a wallop or two in their time. I can certainly recall being boxed on the ears for a false quantity in Latin — though not by a Benedictine!

On the whole, however, I think it is fair to say that the Rule is ahead of its time in making explicit provision for children and young people, and that the guidelines Benedict gives the community as a whole, though comparatively few, are based on personal observation and experience. It is a characteristic of the Rule that care and consideration are to mark everyone’s conduct, especially towards the most vulnerable, among whom Benedict expressly includes the young.

Obedientiaries and children
Given what I have just written, it may seem strange that Benedict does not explicitly name an obedientiary with responsibility for children. It may be, of course, that the novice master had care of them, at least the child oblates. RB 58, concerning the way in which brethren are to be received, does not give us any clues, unless we except Benedict’s admonition that the novice master is to watch over those in his charge ‘with the utmost care’ (RB 58. 6). With the cellarer, we are on slightly surer ground. The list of qualities he is required to have makes daunting reading, but there are two that are particularly striking. He is to be a God-fearing man, ‘like a father to the whole community’ (RB 31. 2), not allowing  anything to be neglected (RB 31. 11); and he is specifically told that he must take meticulous care of children, knowing that he will have to render account for them on Judgement Day (RB31. 9). Children are listed immediately after the sick, which shows how important Benedict regarded their proper treatment and how anxious he was that someone with a great deal of power in the monastery should, like the abbot, be aware of the consequences of any failure.

How far were children integrated into the life and work of the community, and how far were they kept apart? That is difficult to say. Benedict occasionally refers to children and youths who are clearly regarded as community members. For example, he says boys and adolescents are to keep to their entrance order at both table and in choir (Rb 63. 18) and are to have supervision and discipline until they come to the age of discretion (RB 63. 19), which suggests that they eat with the rest of the community and pray with them, too. We find young people assigned to specific tasks, e.g. the doorkeeper, who is singled out as being somebody old and wise, is to have someone younger to help him, but it is not clear whether the reference is to a young monk or an oblate (RB 66.5). The same is probably true of all the various assistants named in the Rule, although we do know that the novices occupied a separate part of the monastery. The degree of segregation probably varied from monastery to monastery, but the obedientiaries are constantly being warned that their conduct must be irreproachable; and where Benedict explicitly mentions children and young people, it is always to urge moderation and care.

A tentative conclusion
The Rule of St Benedict is quite short —it can be read through in an hour — but its language may be difficult for some because it reflects the age in which it was written, the sixth century. Benedict’s preoccupation with Trinitarian orthodoxy and his (for the time) quite novel lack of concern for social status may pass us by unless we are tuned into them, but there is much more that will be found arresting and worth pondering, whether we live in a monastery or not. I think no one who reads the text can come away from it thinking it is in any way ‘responsible’ for the kind of dreadful abuse we have read about at Ampleforth and Downside. The responsibility lies rather with a failure to follow the Rule. For that, there is both an individual responsibility, the personal failure of any one of us to live up to its precepts; and possibly also a collective or institutional failure in the way in which the Rule is interpreted in the Constitutions of the individual monastery, the Declarations of the Congregation to which the monastery may belong or even the directives of the Vatican if they contradict the provisions made by St Benedict. Every Benedictine house has its own ‘feel’, its own ‘take’ on the Rule. At its best, that is an enormous strength; at its worst, it can be misused by individuals to forward aims of their own, and that can be a great weakness.

The Constitutions with which I myself am most familiar are those of the monastery here at Howton Grove, and I do not think that they contain anything contrary to the Rule. We do not belong to a Congregation, so no Declarations to worry about, and though the potential effect of Cor Orans disturbs me greatly, there is absolutely no reason for any community member to argue that the Rule itself has been distorted and is the ’cause’ of any wrongdoing she may be guilty of. I think — I hope— anyone visiting our house will be struck by its authentically Benedictine character, and by its joyfulness. If we fail to live up to the demands of the Rule, if we sin, it is our own responsibility and no one else’s.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Midsummer Madness v. Midsummer Sanity

Midsummer’s Day in the monastery is what we call a dies non. The only obligations on us are to pray, read, eat, sleep, and do whatever is necessary to make the first four possible. It is the nearest we come to a holiday and is meant to ensure a little leisure to enjoy the sunshine. In practice, I have to admit that we often spend the time catching up on tasks we have not yet managed to finish or trying to meet sudden, unexpected demands. The principle is sound, however: we slow down and substitute a little sanity for the mad rush that seems to affect even monasteries these days. The strong, bright light of midsummer allows us to reflect on what really matters and see things more distinctly, or so we hope. How disheartening, then, to wake up to the news that, while President Trump has signed an order that no more children will be separated from the parents, there is no provision to reunite those already separated, and in Hungary it is now a criminal offence for lawyers and activists to try to help asylum seekers (the so-called ‘Stop Soros Law’). We also read that some of the Médecins Sans Frontières aid workers (not doctors or nurses, please note, but logistics staff) are alleged to have regularly used prostitutes, like their Oxfam colleagues. It makes Refugee Week seem rather grim. Where is the sanity in all this? Do we lack compassion and integrity utterly?

Unfortunately, it is not a problem ‘out there’. It strikes nearer home, too. It is easy to weep sentimental tears over children ripped from their parents while condoning the ripping of children from their mothers’ wombs in abortion; it is also easy to lament the criminalisation of help for migrants in other countries while ignoring the effects of strict border controls in our own. We know that, deep down, even if we are reluctant to admit it. Most of us chart a very uneasy moral course, trying to do what is right but not always succeeding.We want to live lives of compassion and integrity but somehow compromise or fudge marks them more than we would like.

I was thinking about this in the context of today’s liturgical commemoration of St Aloysius Gonzaga, the Jesuit novice who died at the age of 23 after nursing the sick and the dying in plague-stricken Rome. He is usually presented as a bit of a wimp: the perfect novice, lily in hand, gazing up to heaven. In fact, he must have been a man of steel. He stood up to his father, a Mantuan nobleman, to resign his inheritance as eldest son and enter the Jesuits at the age of 16. He was remarkable for his fervour and generosity of spirit. Just think for a moment what it meant to nurse the plague-ridden! That took a courage and ability to master squeamishness I myself lack. He is an example of youthful leadership, of the way in which the young sometimes see things more clearly than their elders and hold to their course with a fixity of purpose that shames those of us who merely wobble along the path of virtue.Perhaps we need to use today’s midsummer light to re-evaluate some of our entrenched or even unconsidered positions. It may not be refugees and migrants that we personally need to focus on, but there will be other areas of our lives or of society’s mores that we need to consider more carefully. A dies non can spring suprises, and a little midsummer madness can reveal a layer of sanity we never dreamed existed. May we all find it today.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Father’s Day 2018

Father’s Day is a wonderful opportunity for those blessed with good fathers (living or dead) to celebrate all that is usually left unsaid with cards, gifts, and shared memories of the past. Those whose experience of fatherhood has been less positive often shy away from the day and ignore it as best they can, while others concentrate on spiritual fatherhood and those who have exercised something of a father’s role in their lives. But what of fathers themselves? How do you see this day?

I can’t answer that question, for obvious reasons, but it seems to me worth pausing over because it invites reflection on what fatherhood is and how it functions at different times of our lives. Fatherhood is so important and yet very often misprized or treated as a mere biological fact. What a disservice that is to us all! My own father became my friend as I grew older and were he alive today I’m sure he would give a typically inarticulate-old-fashioned-English-gentleman response to my question. To him, fatherhood was just something one got on with, but it was a role and a duty that never ended. A father was a father always, and I suspect most of my male readers would echo that.

Today, as we give thanks for all fathers, let us also pray for those who feel they have failed or are excluded from their children’s lives, and for the children who live with the knowledge that their father rejected them or was in some way deficient in fulfilling his role.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail