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 them

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Suffer Little Children

There is something peculiarly inhumane about separating children from their families. Of course, it has always gone on. War and poverty have always divided people while different attitudes to childhood and family have led to some surprising instances of what we would now regard as callous behaviour. In recent years the adoption policies of various agencies, in particular Catholic ‘mother and baby’ homes, have come under scrutiny and been found wanting. I have to admit, however, that the immigration policies currently adopted by the U.S.A. have been troubling me greatly because, as far as I can see, they have been implemented with only one aim in view, viz. the furtherance of President Trump’s one-sided protectionist policies. They may go down well with some sectors of American society but, given that many U.S. citizens identify as Christian, one must ask whether they are just?

Before my readers rush to correct me, may I suggest two things. The first is that both the morality and the legality of splitting up families is questionable. The moral arguments I would advance may not be accepted by all, but the legal arguments should be more generally agreed by those who believe that human rights exist. All the fine rhetoric about the right to family life comes down to a realisation that the family is the basis of human society. Article 16 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’ As far as I know, the U.S.A. has not yet officially repudiated that declaration. Here in the UK, the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into our laws so that Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 guarantees our right to a private and family life. Worth thinking about, surely.

There is, however, a second, purely pragmatic argument I would put forward: that it is not in the best interests of the U.S.A. or any other state to sow the seeds of anger and resentment among the young. It may take a few years before the harvest is reaped, but one can see how much terrorist violence at the present time stems from a burning sense of grievance at past wrongs, real or imagined. Often the history that gives rise to such a sense of grievance is partial or skewed, but that does nothing to change its effect. Can any of us afford to alienate the young people now experiencing the loss of family life through their incarceration in detention centres?

This is a very short post on a difficult and emotive subject, but it may help our thinking and praying to remember that every statistic we read has a human face, a human story behind it. May the Lord enlighten all of us to see ‘Christ lovely in limbs not his’ and act accordingly.

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Rights, Duties and the Holy Trinity

This morning, at Vigils, my thoughts wandered. Usually the thunderous anathemas of the Athanasian Creed concentrate my mind, but not today. I thought of St Patrick using the shamrock to teach how ‘God is One and God is Three’ and denouncing the slave trade (he had been a slave himself) and emphasizing the importance of respect for others. In the light of the Republic of Ireland’s decision to repeal their eighth amendment, that seems almost ironic.  It cannot be said too often: if we have rights, we also have duties; and we cannot love and revere God if we do not love and revere other people. For myself, I am convinced that the result of Thursday’s referendum has as much to do with the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in Ireland and the slowness with which Catholicism in general has embraced the idea that women are not just mothers (as men are not just fathers) as anything more sinister. The result, however, is indeed sinister. If the unborn child has no right to life, then the rights of all of us are in question.

So, back to the Trinity. Love must have a beloved, and the love between them must be fruitful; so we have this luminous circle of love within the Trinity that pours itself out in an endless embrace of our humanity. Knowing that, how can we treat the unborn child as a ‘thing’ when he/she is made ‘in the image and likeness of God’? In the years before I became a nun, I was active in the Life movement, trying to provide help and material support to those whose pregnancies were unplanned or unwanted. Most had been abandoned by the men who had made them pregnant; some had been ‘ordered’ to have an abortion by their partner or by their family who regarded the birth of a child as ‘inconvenient’ or a ‘dishonour’. Yet I don’t remember any of the women themselves thinking of their unborn child in that way. Some chose to keep their child; others offered their child for adoption. Whatever their decision, it was clear they cared, that they saw their child as a person, not just a bothersome collection of cells that they had the right to treat how they would. And never once did I hear any of them call their child ‘an embryo’ or ‘a foetus’ (which is just Latin for ‘offspring’, anyway). It was always ‘my baby’.

Call me naive, if you will, but I can’t help thinking that God must be weeping over us, his ‘babies’, today. We get so many things wrong. We think we can cherry-pick our morality, so we condemn abortion, perhaps, but are gung-ho about the death penalty. Or we want to save the environment and are passionate about clearing the oceans of plastic and other waste, but we don’t put much effort into defending unborn or elderly human beings. Or we campaign for disability rights, but then argue that we should eliminate those with Down’s or other conditions that we, from the outside, regard as intolerable.

I suggest we need to do some hard thinking about the way in which our adoration of God must, absolutely must, affect how we regard other people — how we deal with questions of rights and duties, how, in short, we live the mysteries of our faith. We are not the lords of creation, only its stewards. Today’s feast is a reminder that God’s thoughts are, as the psalmist says, ‘not your thoughts’ but ‘as high above your thoughts as the heavens are above the earth’. Or, as St Benedict tells us in the portion of the Rule appointed to be read today, ‘God is always present in our thoughts,’ always searching for that fear of God which is life-giving and life-affirming, a sign of the indwelling Trinity which is the greatest and most beautiful mystery of all. (cf RB 7.10–18)

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A Time to Speak; A Time to Keep Silence

I have learned a valuable lesson during the past few days: it is sometimes wiser to allow misunderstandings to proliferate rather than try to set them right. You may wonder at that. Surely, we have a duty to speak up in defence of right? On the whole, I would agree, but twice in recent days, when the post-chemo brain fog has been at its foggiest, I have realised the uselessness of any intervention.

The first was a minor matter on Facebook: a thread about the headship of the Commonwealth which was misunderstood by some as being about the succession to the throne. I tried, vainly, to explain the difference but withdrew from the conversation when I saw how violent and ill-informed some of the comments were. I daresay some were actionable; certainly they presumed a knowledge of the characters and personal lives of those they discussed that I very much doubt any of them had!

The second was, and is, the much more troubling matter of Alfie Evans and his treatment. I have read what I can, and thought and prayed. I would like it to be a simple matter, but it isn’t. I am made very uneasy by what appears to be the suppression of some salient facts (e.g. that Alfie has breathed on his own for some 30+ hours since the life-support was switched off, not just 3 minutes), by some of the underlying assumptions (e.g. on one side that he is ‘brain-dead’ so his life does not count; on the other, that an infinity of NHS resources can be lavished upon him) and by the wild accusations being made by some people (e.g. that a Fentonyl injection is to be given to kill him). There is also the disgraceful barracking of medical and nursing staff at Alder Hey. The plain truth is that I don’t really know what is going on, and in that I am not alone. I suspect very few people do know what is really going on since only a handful are aware of all the facts and have the necessary legal and medical understanding to assess them. Even so, mistakes can be made: experts are not omniscient, and how could a parent ever be indifferent to the suffering of his own child?

Where does that leave us this morning? I think it leaves us on our knees, with a tiny child struggling for life, unaware of the furious battles being raged over his head. There are no words, only a silence that must embrace everyone involved — a silence that proceeds from the bruised heart of God himself.

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Holy Innocents 2017

Three feasts of the Christmas octave are drenched in blood: we celebrate St Stephen and St Thomas as martyrs and the Holy Innocents as proto-martyrs. There is a terrible irony in the fact that the coming of the life-giving Prince of Peace should have meant violence and death for so many. We can ‘spritualise’ this fact any way we want. After all, it is true that Christ will always be a sign of contradiction, challenging our ideas about what is important. Today’s feast not only does that, it reminds us that the living out of our Christian vocation cannot be separated from the flesh-and-blood reality of everyday life. We cannot ‘spiritualise away’ our responsibility for others or the evil to which they are subject. Today we must ask ourselves whether our concern for children is mere sentimentality. Do we have a duty to do whatever is in our power to ensure that the life of every child is valued and protected, and if so, how do we fulfil that duty?

The publication of the UNICEF report has highlighted the appalling ways in which children today are being exploited and endangered. The summary for 2017 included

  • In the Central African Republic, children were killed, raped, abducted and recruited by armed groups in a dramatic increase in violence;
  • Islamist militants Boko Haram forced at least 135 children in north-east Nigeria and Cameroon to act as suicide bombers, almost five times the number in 2016;
  • Muslim Rohingya children in Myanmar suffered ‘shocking and widespread violence’ as they were driven from their homes in Rakhine state;
  • In South Sudan, more than 19,000 children were recruited into armed forces and armed groups;
  • Fighting in Yemen has left at least 5,000 children dead or injured according to official figures, with the real number expected to be much higher;
  • In eastern Ukraine, 220,000 children are living under the constant threat from landmines and other unexploded devices left over from the war.

I would want to add to this list the huge number of children denied any chance of life through abortion; those whose lives have been distorted by abuse; and those whose health and welfare could best be described as ‘marginal’. It is shocking to think of the number of children in the UK alone who live below the poverty line. That isn’t a problem ‘out there’, it is a scandal at the very heart of our society; and there is the danger that by tacitly accepting the brutalisation and misvaluing of children, we are storing up massive problems for the future.

Today’s feast is a difficult one at many levels, but it is also one that takes us away from the tinsel and tackiness of the secular Xmas and plunges us into the heart of the real Christmas. Suffering and sacrifice are part of all Christian life, because they were part of Christ’s. But the suffering of children is of a different order, especially when  inflicted by the neglect or ill-will of adults. Today we must search our consciences and resolve to do better by every child — not just those in our family or in our locality. Eleven million children are judged to be at risk in Yemen. The quarrels of their seniors are not theirs. Oughtn’t we to be lobbying everyone we can to change the situation? And oughtn’t our prayer to be not only for a change of heart among the people of Yemen and Saudi Arabia but also for forgiveness for ourselves that it has taken us so long to wake up to the evil in our midst?

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