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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Why Bother?

We all know what a thankless task it is to intervene in a quarrel not our own or to try to remedy an ill or put right a wrong that does not directly concern us. Usually, we retreat wounded, blaming ourselves for our foolishness or ruefully reflecting on our inability to assess the situation properly. So, why do we bother? We may simply be busy-bodies, convinced of the utter rightness of everything we think or say or do; or we may just be fools, rushing in where angels fear to tread. I think it more likely, however, that we have never been able to brush aside the question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ and therefore have a sense of obligation to act if we see injustice, error or sheer silliness at work. The trouble is, what we see is only part of the whole. That acts as a check on our more stupid interventions but doesn’t, alas, guarantee that we will always act wisely or prudently. Sometimes we need to think carefully about the form our bothering should take.

This morning I found the monastery inbox screaming with complaints about what we have/have not said/done in the Charlie Gard case. I have no intention of answering our critics because the case is very complex and at its heart is one small, very sick child and his parents and a host of medical and legal professionals all doing their best for him. What the community has been doing is praying for everyone involved. We cannot turn aside and say that medically, morally and legally everything is beyond us, so we do nothing; nor can we (unless we are in possession of all the facts and the relevant expertise) assert with any confidence what should be done as though we had an insight everyone else lacked. We can do our best to inform ourselves, but then we need to reflect. We are told that doctors and nurses at Great Ormond Street have been receiving death threats. That does not come from God but from the Evil One. It should concern us greatly because if we truly value life, we will respect it.

So, how should we respond? I think myself that we must just go on praying. If we are not directly involved and have no special expertise to offer, we may complicate matters with ignorant or ill-advised attempts at intervention. On the other hand, we know God likes to be bothered, so I suggest we bother him a lot with our prayer. That is doing something, and something that really counts.

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In Sight of Our Goal

Today . . . tomorrow . . . the interplay of those words is Advent in a nutshell. We await a Saviour, but his coming must be prepared today; the tomorrow for which we long is here and now, for Christ has already come. Christianity is so full of paradoxes, but a paradox is really only a truth viewed from all sides and appreciated for what it truly is. We may feel that we have been plodding through the desert these last few weeks, but tomorrow, on 17 December, we begin a week of proximate preparation for Christmas and the Church can scarcely contain her joy. We are in sight of our goal and have every reason to rejoice. We sometimes forget that. We are so busy doing good deeds, or lamenting our failure to do good deeds, that we forget the rapturous joy with which the Church greets the approach of Christ’s birth.

The Second Preface of Advent, which we shall use from tomorrow onwards, expresses the hope and joy of this last week before Christmas:

It is truly right and just,
our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father,
almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy . . .

If we are pressed for time, we could do worse than ponder each phrase of the preface, giving ourselves permission to rejoice, as it were. At Vespers tomorrow we shall begin singing the ‘O’ antiphons which chart the final steps of our journey. And if we hesitate, if the thought of Syria in flames or the corruption and sadness we see in so many areas of life makes us reluctant to rejoice, we can take heart from today’s reading from Isaiah 56. It is the Lord who gathers us to his holy mountain and makes us joyful in his house of prayer. Our business is to follow and be glad. It is as simple as that — as simple as a baby’s cry or happy gurgle.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.

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Death on Camber Sands

Sometimes it is the numerically smaller, more local tragedies that hit hardest. The ongoing tragedy that is Syria, the earthquake in Italy, they are heart-breaking and we feel a deep sense of connectedness with those who suffer; but a father and child* lost to the sea in Cornwall or five friends drowned on Camber Sands, these are tragedies we can identify with more easily. We have names, faces, personal histories associated with places we know; and if we have lived by the sea, we also know what fickle things tides and currents are. The water at Newquay sweeps in faster than a strong man can run; Camber Sands are notoriously dangerous and the graveyard of many a ship. But those on holiday, possibly unfamiliar with these things and caught up in the magic of a carefree moment, tend not to notice when the tide has turned, when they ought to turn back to the safety of the shore.

Inevitably, people ask, ‘Why does God allow such things to happen?’ There is no real answer other than, ‘We do not know.’ I myself do not believe in the kind of interventionist God who never allows sad things to happen, because such a God makes a mockery of human freedom and dignity and curtails the freedom and beauty of the natural world. I do, however, believe in a God of tenderness and compassion, a God who does not destroy wantonly or take pleasure in the death of anyone. I do not understand, for example, why God allowed the death of those five friends on Camber Sands but I am convinced that their death is not meaningless, that they are not lost for ever. Many will find such a statement unsatisfactory, but it is what I believe. We live with the messiness of life and death, not knowing, not understanding, but somehow willing to trust. It is part of being human. I pray for the souls of those who have died, for the comforting of their family and friends; and I pray that those who holiday beside the sea will take heed of the warning notices and tide tables.

  • A tragedy made all the sadder by the fact that the child was rescued but died later.
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Awkward Questions for an Awkward Feast

Anyone who remembers my 2011 post on today’s feast of the Holy Family (which you can read here, if you wish) will know that my ambivalence about it doesn’t allow me to sidestep its awkwardness. Indeed, it is because it is for me an awkward feast that I have to work at it each year. For once I am almost glad I cannot go to Mass today. The thought of hearing yet another homily on the idealised home life of Nazareth might send me shrieking from the pews!

This morning I have been reflecting instead on a question posed by a reader of a recent post on Consecrated Life. He said that many lay people feel the Year of Consecrated Life has nothing to do with them, yet they would like to be able to contribute to it. Had I any advice to give? Now, the first point to note is the ecclesiological understanding of my reader. For him consecrated life is as much a part of the Church as his own vocation as husband and father or that of the priest. For many people today that simply isn’t true. We have moved on from the view that all religious are the best of saints/the worst of sinners to one where, by and large, they are invisible. They no longer feature in most people’s ideas about the Church except insofar as they provide a little local colour on the streets of Rome or in the occasional retro movie. The notion that religious vocations are as real as any other and that they start where all other vocations start, in the life of the family, is increasingly alien.

So, perhaps we could begin by thinking about this feast as an invitation to reflect on how the family is both the origin of our membership of the Church (we have to be born to be baptised) and our individual vocation within it. Then we might go on to think about the way in which vocation changes over time, and the demands that makes on us. We are not always children. We grow up, work, marry and have children (most of us), then experience widowhood, etc. Yet membership of the Church remains a constant, even if it is at arm’s length some of the time.

Where religious vocation is concerned, I think it important to stress that more than prayer is needed. If we genuinely believe in the value of consecrated life, then it is up to us to ensure that it is known about. How many parishes, for example, have invited local religious to talk about their vocation or have arranged visits to their houses to see and experience for themselves how religious live (as distinct from how they think religious live)? How many have addressed the difference between lifelong commitment and the intern approach that has become popular of late? In short, how many ordinary families living their ordinary parish life have made the connection with consecrated life that the Year of Consecrated Life seeks to promote, and how many have seen it as a natural part of their ordinary family life? We used to call this ‘fostering religious vocations’. Why have we become reluctant to do so? Is it because, deep down, we don’t really believe in the value of consecrated life? If so, I think we may have some even harder questions to address.

I am aware that I am saying nothing new, but if it encourages even one person to think slightly outside the box on the subject of family, it will have been worthwhile. Have a lovely day!

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Twelve Every Hour

According to UNICEF, twelve children die every hour as a result of violence, most of it not linked to war. That is an appalling statistic. It means that every five minutes somewhere in the world a child is being done to death, most probably by adults charged with their care. Very often we note such things with a shudder, utter a silent prayer, and then move on to the business of the day. We forget that children have no real voice. They aren’t in a position to make much fuss. They don’t lobby politicians, launch Social Media campaigns or otherwise engage public attention. Here in Britain we are inclined to be a bit sentimental about childhood. Child abuse and child poverty grab the headlines when they are uncovered, but the kind of violence UNICEF was talking about tends to be under the radar. Perhaps today we could each spend a few moments thinking about these things — not condemning the perpetrators, which can often be a fruitless exercise in vicarious anger, but rather but thinking about how we can protect the young. Violence against children is not acceptable, but how do we create a society where we all believe and act on that principle?

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Holy Innocents 2013

Those who don’t have children of their own are inclined to be sentimental about the children of others — provided they remain at a safe distance, of course. At Christmas such sentimentality is not only indulged, it is almost obligatory. We are invited to become misty-eyed at the thought of children hanging up their stockings for Father Christmas or coo and goo over Nativity Plays where the actors are barely three feet tall and Baby Jesus is all blue-eyed plastic perfection. Then comes the feast of the Holy Innocents and our sentimentality is ripped to shreds by the brutal fact of child murder.

Why does this feast come before Epiphany, when, chronologically speaking, it should follow after? The answer is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the Infant Saviour and their feast is therefore included among those of the Christmas Octave so that the link between the two may be more clearly seen. It is a disturbing feast, turning upside down our ideas about the special status of childhood and the protection every adult should afford every child.

In the Catholic Church this feast is often appropriated to two causes: the pro-life, anti-abortion movement which seeks to put an end to abortion and the situations that make it ‘necessary’ or ‘desirable’; and the attempt to end the evil of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) and exploitation. Both are, in my view, very worthy causes, though I sometimes hesitate over the methods adopted by some groups. What I find difficult, however, is the way in which appealing to the Holy Innocents as patrons of these causes dulls our sense of outrage at the original event. What was God thinking of to allow such a horror?

There is no easy answer to such a question, but unless we take on board the scandal of this feast, I think we are failing to take on board the enormity of the Incarnation. When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, he overthrew every previous notion about God. The feast of the Holy Innocents urges us to rethink our own ideas about him, which may well have become tinged with some of the sentimentality I wrote about earlier. We are confronted with a God who is above and beyond anything we can think or imagine. Our only certainty is that he loves us, loves us enough to become one of us and suffer and die for us. The little children slain by Herod may be to us a type, an abstract of innocence, but to him they are individuals, chosen and precious in his sight. Thinking and praying about that may teach us something we never knew before.

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