Being Unsentimental About Children

Just occasionally, I have the impression that we confuse sentimentality with caring. An old person dies after weeks of neglect and we trumpet our indignation, but were we there when he/she needed help? Were we ready to do the caring ourselves or do we merely want to blame others for what we perceive to be their shortcomings?

Children are always in the news because of the terrible things adults do to them, especially if they involve sex, but I think that there, too, we operate a double standard. We want our children to be ‘innocent’, but we know very well that our society sexualises children from a very young age. The Crown Prosecution Service has criticised one of its barristers for describing a 13-year-old sex abuse victim as ‘predatory’ and ‘sexually experienced’. While we shrink, rightly, from the use of such language, at the back of our minds there may be a slight hesitation. Should we be surprised if children adopt sexual attitudes and behaviours inappropriate to their age and understanding if we bombard them with sexual messages from their earliest years?

Perhaps if we were less sentimental and more honest, we would make better carers.  Seeing people as people rather than as consumers or, worse still, commodities would be a good place to start.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Another Kind of Suffering

We are about to begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Christian year, and our eyes are already beginning to focus on the Cross and the suffering Jesus will undergo for our sakes. All our own suffering and failure is taken up into that one great redemptive act. That doesn’t mean, however, that what we suffer is somehow less real because it cannot compare with the suffering of Jesus. We can exaggerate, but we can also ‘spiritualize’, not acknowledge how deeply or negatively we experience things. Yesterday I had a negative experience I’ll share with you in the hope that it may help you see that whatever we suffer can be a way in to understanding what we celebrate this coming week. At least, I found it helpful.

I had been invited to take part in a radio programme. The producer had kindly sent an advance list of questions to form a basis for conversation and the interviewer was one I admire. All very promising. I listened to the first two contributors and felt very much in sympathy with them. Then came another, and as she spoke I began to be troubled by what she was saying about something I happen to hold very different views on. When my own turn came, I was distinctly lacklustre. No problem with that (except for my pride!), but then I was taken off-guard by the way in which two further questions were posed: the ordination of women and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Catholics will know that John Paul II placed discussion of the ordination of women off-limits, and for those of us who are priests or religious, it is a tricky question to handle in the public sphere because the way in which it is presented (as one of equality or power in the Church) is not one that corresponds to our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders. One has to tread carefully to be intelligible to the general public and not overstep the boundaries currently permitted by the Church. I made a hash of it. Then came the killer. Would the presence of women in the priesthood help avoid sexual abuse? There are two things to note here. First, I find the idea of women being priests themselves (or priests being allowed to marry) as a way of preventing men from acting wickedly rather insulting to women. To be fair, I don’t think the interviewer meant that. It just sounded like it to me. Secondly, but just as importantly, few seem to recognize that most Catholics — surely the vast majority — are deeply upset by what we have learned of abuse and cover-ups. It reduces me to tears, and yesterday I found myself welling-up on air at the thought of how those children had been abused and the whole Church had been betrayed.

Quite clearly, the narrative of abuse in the Catholic Church is the only one the media are really interested in. I am beginning to wonder, however, whether it is time to ask the un-askable. Are there others who suffer in addition to those abused, and should we be concerned about them, too? A few years ago I wrote about the effect of abuse compensation claims on the diocese of Boston. So huge were they that the diocese had to close schools and hospitals for the poor, and one convent of religious sisters had the roof over their heads sold to help meet the cost (they were generously re-homed by some Episcopalian sisters). It was all very sad. The abuse was dreadful; the price paid by the Catholics of Boston and the poor was also dreadful. This is another kind of suffering which is not, by and large, acknowledged: the suffering of those who are themselves innocent of abuse but who must pay for the sins of the guilty — in terms of money, services, reputation and the constant drip-drip of poisonous remarks.

Some will argue that that is just tough. The awfulness of what happened means that Catholics must put up with whatever the world chooses to throw at us. The latest scandals attaching to the name of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have led to even more gleeful dirt-chucking. Those who believe that a vow of chastity or a promise of celibacy obliges to continence are appalled and saddened. The abuse of power is rightly seen as completely unacceptable. There is no excuse.

But I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the constant negativity does have an effect. To be held responsible for something one had no part in, that one condemns absolutely, isn’t easy. The pain and grief we feel for the wrong done to or by others is not assuaged by knowing that it may draw one closer to Jesus. The only way in which we can make sense of it is by remembering that we are the Body of Christ — wounded, bloodied, it is true, but still intimately united to our Lord and Saviour, who will never fail or forsake us.

As we process with our palms tomorrow, rejoicing in that transient moment of triumph which was a prelude to the everlasting triumph of the Cross, let us give thanks that we have a Saviour who has borne all our sin and shame. In him, we are washed clean, given fresh hope, redeemed.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Herod’s Solution

The feast of the Holy Innocents, when we commemorate Herod’s massacre of children in an attempt to ‘eliminate’ Jesus, is a very good day on which to think about the gulf between the popular conception of Christmas and the reality. Quite apart from the fact that for many Christmas ended with the Boxing Day leftovers (wrong: there are twelve days of Christmas and the liturgical season of Christmas ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord), there is the rather more fundamental problem of what exactly Christmas is about. ‘Peace and goodwill,’ many will say, conveniently ignoring the fact that we have barely welcomed the birth of Christ when we are celebrating the martyrdom of St Stephen and all the other martyr saints that follow in his train. ‘Family,’ say some; or ‘a festival for the children’ say yet others. All of which is true, but very far from being the whole truth.

I think the Benedictine motto, the word Pax or ‘Peace’ surrounded by a crown of thorns, is a useful image for what Christmas means. Yes, we welcome the Prince of Peace, but we know where his peace-making will lead — to death on the Cross. The Child in the manger will become the Man of Sorrows who redeems us at the expense of his own life. More than that, the Child whose birth we celebrate with feasting and fun will be a sign of contradiction for the whole world, dividing as well as uniting, because when he calls us to follow, we must leave everything else behind. For some, that will mean abandoning family and career in order to follow Jesus as a priest or religious; for others it will mean taking on the demands of discipleship in a world which would rather not know about the ‘difficult’ aspects of Christianity, especially when they challenge the comfortable opinions by which society lives.

So, today, we are challenged by this feast of the Holy Innocents to think about children and how we love and respect them. In an earlier post (Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church), I tried to explain how the Church’s upholding of the sanctity of life is part of a bigger picture. My subsequent postbag contained its fair share of  ‘all Catholics are abusers’ insults. More tellingly, I noticed that not one person alluded to any of the good done by Christians — not just Catholics — to try to care for children and their parents because of our conviction about the dignity and worth of every human person: the safe houses and support offered to those who don’t want an abortion; the schools, orphanages, adoption agencies, welfare systems put in place by those whose motivation springs from their acceptance of Christ as Lord and Saviour. No one is claiming that no mistakes have been made; but not to acknowledge the good that is and was done, or at least attempted, is one-sided, in itself a scandal.

It is in this context of care for children and the value of human life, that I myself would place the Catholic Church’s concern about abortion, marriage, adoption, euthanasia, care of the elderly, the death penalty and so on. The media tends to highlight what it finds newsworthy and quotes selectively, often presenting Catholic teaching in a negative light. Add to that some increasingly secular legislation throughout Europe and the U.S.A., and you can see why some begin to think that ‘Herod’s solution’ (crush the opposition by brute force) is alive and well in western democracies.

Herod’s solution is really no solution, of course. Killing those little children nearly two thousand years ago did not make Herod any safer. It did not stop Jesus. It will not stop Christians now. The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem really did change everything. Perhaps we need to spend a little time thinking through the implications of this or we shall have failed to grasp the connection between the crib and the cross and the real cause of all our joy and thanksgiving this Christmas.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation)

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Why is Everyone so Angry?

I often ask myself why everyone is so angry. Read the comments section of any online newspaper and you’ll find as much bile and invective as thoughtful argument. The media themselves certainly don’t help, always looking for the victim impact statement whenever there is a tragedy or pouncing on people while they are still in a state of shock and unbelief. (As an aside, did reporters really need to interview those children caught up in the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday, or am I being ludicrously squeamish?) We have made tragedy into a spectacle and anger is, apparently, a legitimate response to any imperfect situation and a marker of our own righteousness. We get angry in order to feel good.

The trouble is, anger doesn’t get us anywhere and it doesn’t make us feel good for very long. It just intensifies the misery and compounds the negativity. When Jacintha Saldhana died, the Australian presenters responsible for the hoax telephone call received death threats from people who had no connection with Mrs Saldhana or her family. What was going on there? The presenters behaved foolishly, then compounded their folly by parading their regret for all the world to see; but who were those people who felt they had the right to punish others for what they had done? Did their anger help Mrs Saldhana’s family? No. It made a deeply sad situation even sadder. When the pope started tweeting, many used the opportunity to fill his twitterstream with dismissive and hostile remarks. Accusing the pope of bigotry or reviling him personally for the sins of his co-religionists may not sound very bad, but anyone who has been on the receiving end of false accusations knows how wounding they can be, and not only to oneself. Did berating the pope achieve anything? No. It merely made some people give up on Twitter altogether.

Yesterday, on Facebook, people misidentified the killer at Sandy Hook and started a campaign against someone completely innocent. Was that simply a collective howl of pain, feelings of revulsion and horror needing an outlet which in blind fury lashed out, or was there something uglier and more sinister at work? I don’t know, but it did nothing to assuage the grief of the bereaved or make the world a safer place to be. Instead, it made one person and his family feel very vulnerable indeed.

I think anger of the kind I am talking about is very often an inverse form of what it is ostensibly condemning, and it is deeply worrying. Regular readers know I am a great admirer of René Girard and have been profoundly influenced by some of his reflections on the nature of violence and the Christian response thereto. Passing the poison on has to stop, and it has to stop with us. Yes, we need to address situations that are wrong, but knee-jerk reactions are rarely the best even if they provide some temporary relief to our feelings.

Isaiah has a beautiful image for what the coming reign of God will achieve in our lives. He speaks of doing away with the clenched fist and the wicked word (Isaiah 58). That is precisely what our prayer during Advent aims at: a transformation of heart and mind that will allow Jesus our Messiah to unfurl our fists and open our hands to receive the gifts he wishes to give us. Sometimes those gifts are painful and costly, but he knows our pain and shares it with us. That is what the Incarnation means. This morning, in Newtown, Connecticut, people do not need our anger. They need our prayer.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Orphaned Children

There is a report on today’s BBC website about orphans in Iraq which I found haunting. It is easy to become sentimental about children if one isn’t a parent; it is also easy to become indifferent or focus on whatever is the current ‘child headline’. Here in Britain, child abuse is a hot topic; and while I would emphatically agree that we need to ensure every child is safe, I must confess it has made me think less about other matters that affect children. Surely the loss of a parent is one of the most traumatic; and to lose both parents to violence or war more traumatic still? The thought that there may be 800,000 to a million orphaned children in Iraq alone should give us pause. What does that mean for the individuals concerned and society in general?

I have no clever suggestions to make. We need to pray, certainly. If we can, we need to help financially or with our time. Perhaps most of all, we need to try to make an imaginative leap of understanding. Like many others, I had grave doubts about the legitimacy of western intervention in Iraq but other conflicts have come to take centre stage and my mind now turns more easily to Syria or the DRC. The danger is that we may forget that war and the effects of war last long after the last soldier has left the country. For those orphaned children in Iraq and others like them, the war will really only end a generation hence—if then.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Putting Things Right

Those of you who read the Rule of St Benedict each day, or listen to the recordings on our main website, have probably been struck by the fact that the current chapters have a lot to say about faults — offences against silence or monastic discipline generally. In each case, Benedict specifies a form of making satisfaction — what a child might call ‘putting things right’. That is an important concept to get hold of. To put things right, we must first admit they have gone wrong; and how difficult most of us find that! Proud people don’t make mistakes; they have oversights, are forced into difficult positions, make excuses for themselves and will only apologize for any offence they MAY have given. Benedict will have none of that. The so-called penal code in RB is not about apportioning blame or punishing faults as such. Rather, it is a way of bringing us to humility, to the truth about ourselves and others, reintegrating us into a community from which we have exiled ourselves by our own behaviour. As such, it is much more searching than may at first appear.

Take today’s brief chapter about making mistakes in the oratory, RB 45. When we trip over a word or sing a wrong note, we kneel briefly on the floor. It alerts everyone; and if the false note or word has led everyone astray, it often helps to get us all back on track. Such a little thing, you might think; we all make mistakes, why bother about it? The point is that in our communal worship of God carelessness has no place. To sing the Divine Office hour by hour, day by day, requires concentration. It would be easy to become sloppy now and again, but to allow such sloppiness would be not merely a personal but also a communal failure.

Sometimes we don’t see that personal wrongdoing has a communal dimension. We argue that no one else is affected by what we do. But rather like the false note in choir, even our most hidden faults, such as nursing a grudge or jealous thoughts, weaken the strength of the community as a whole by injecting it with a kind of moral poison. The only antidote is humility and that truthfulness I mentioned above. I think the Lord was on to something when he urged us to turn and become like little children. Putting things right may be more difficult for us as adults. We have to ‘unlearn’ so many defensive strategies; but ultimately, isn’t it worth it?

Howton Grove Priory Email Newsletter

You can read our latest newsletter here, and sign up for future editions here (links open in new windows).

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Always Someone Other?

The old and the very young are always someone other, someone we notice or ignore, but somehow never think of in relation to ourselves. The truth is, of course, we have all been very young and some of us may live to be old, but we are never very young or old inside. What we are is ‘normal’, which may be one reason why we are sometimes not very good at entering imaginatively into the world of the young and old. We prescribe what we think they need or want rather than what they may actually need or want.

In this context, St Benedict’s brief chapter (RB 37, read today) on the old and very young members of the community is striking for its awareness of what is in his view of consuming interest to both young and old: food, and the times for food. He asserts that ‘human nature tends of itself to be compassionate towards theses ages of life, the old and the very young’ but still wants the Rule to make provision for them. He asks for their lack of strength to be taken into consideration and explicitly forbids the strictness of the Rule as regards food to be applied to them. They are to be allowed to eat earlier than the rest of the community.

To an outsider, this might seem no more than a little tenderness on Benedict’s part, something to pass over with a smile. How typical of a monk to concentrate on food! Think back to the monastery of the sixth century and a very different picture emerges. Benedict is asking quite a lot of the monastic cooks, to have two meals ready at different times, one geared to the needs of the young and old, the other to the stronger members of the community. Even today, those of us who have been monastic kitcheners in large communities, blessed with all the gadgets that make life easier, from electric beaters to gas hobs, have often found it difficult to prepare meals for different groups and still observe the monastic schedule. How much harder when cooking on open fires!

It seems to me that what Benedict is saying is that we can easily be sentimental about the young and old; we can quieten our consciences by insisting that someone else should do the caring for them, but he wants us to take personal responsibility. In Benedict’s monastery no one was excused kitchen service except those who were not strong enough, or who were assigned to some other important business of the house. In other words, everyone had a duty of care towards the young and the old. Their welfare was the concern of all.

With all the recent scandals about child abuse, elder neglect and so on, I wonder whether we could usefully spend a few minutes today thinking about how we ourselves fulfill the duty of care towards both young and old, especially if our immediate family/community does not have any young or old members. It could prove more searching than you think.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Jimmy Savile and the Spectacle of Shame

Peter Watt has written what is, in my view, the simplest, shortest and most worthwhile comment to date on the Savile scandal. You can read it here (link opens in new window). It has been bothering me that a media circus has been created out of a tragedy; that people who had no connection with Savile have been hounded as though they were responsible for his actions; and all the time, the underlying problem, the lack of respect adults have for children (many of them, anyway) and the quite frightening disregard for their safety has not been addressed. Will it ever be? All the regulations in the world cannot make up for the willingness or otherwise to listen to a scared child blurting out the horror of what they have experienced and then judging whether the child is telling the truth or not. (The presumption is in favour of the child, but let’s not forget that false accusations can be made and we have a duty to ensure that the innocent are not condemned.)

Every day brings fresh allegations. We are told that the scandal may touch a former Prime Minister. One would need to be very naive indeed to believe that politicians are exempt from any kind of wrongdoing, but the thought that first the Church, now the BBC and the political establishment, are to be paraded before us in a spectacle of shame provides no catharsis. Although the sickening cover-ups in the Savile case have helped me to understand better (though not to condone) the failure of bishops and other senior clergy to deal with clerical abuse in years past, I still think we are looking in the wrong direction. We are using the past to shield us from the present, looking at the child’s world with adult eyes.

That perhaps is the big problem. Thinking about events in Rochdale and Rotherham, I wonder whether we are somehow incapable of entering imaginatively into a world we are more and more distant from. ‘Except you change and become as little children,’ said the Lord, ‘you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So often we hear those words and think in terms of conversion, religious change. Maybe we need to think about them in more purely human terms,  as a need for insight and attention to the least powerful, most vulnerable members of society. I don’t know, but it is something I urge you to join me in praying about.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Another Howton Grove Priory Update

A few of the 'smaller' leylandii
A few of the ‘smaller’ leylandii

We shall soon have been here three months. Visitors remark how much we’ve done in that time, but for us the days pass in something of a blur. We moved during the height of the grass-growing season so have been constantly dodging rainstorms of almost tropical intensity in order to keep the lawns mown. Friends from Wantage came and worked terrifically hard in the garden to clear many of the ‘smaller’ leylandii and some rather intrusive yuccas before starting on the proposed vegetable plot.

Hidden treasures
Hidden treasures

In the process some lovely bits of agricultural archaeology were unearthed. Now all we need are half a dozen strong men or women to help us move them to more suitable places! (The photo above shows an agricultural sink unearthed in the prospective vegetable plot. It will join our cider mill, cider press, stone horse trough and cartwheels to remind us of the barn’s origins.)

Our friend Damien Young at work in the garden
Getting stuck in!
Vegetable plot before clearing
Vegetable plot before clearing

Vegetable plot after clearing
Vegetable plot after clearing: laurel and silver fir still to go

Alas, we failed to keep a rampant clematis in check and had to call out an emergency gutter-clearing service since we don’t, as yet, have a ladder high enough to enable us to deal with such problems ourselves. The frustration! We are also having to call in a professional hedge-cutter to deal with the hornbeam hedge which seems to have set its sights on the moon, so lush has been its growth this year, and to remove some of the larger confers and laurels to allow planting of more fruit trees (we already have apple, pear and plum — although the pear has no fruit this year and the plum looks as though it is ailing — plus a flowering cherry which needs more breathing-space, and a magnificent hazel laden with nuts.)

Inside the house we have replaced some windows which needed attention. Tomorrow a builder comes to begin some plasterwork renovation the Bank requires, and soon after that, we hope to have the first of our bookshelves installed. Then, finally, we can begin to unpack our books which are piled up in boxes in the calefactory and garages — and maybe begin to think about those areas we’d like to redecorate before our postulant-to-be takes up residence. (She was relieved to hear we had bought her a bed, but please pray that all visa issues are resolved quickly and positively)

In the meantime, the prayer and ordinary work of the house continue, the latter often in the early hours or late in the evening. Doing so has enabled us to appreciate ever more in what a beautiful part of the country we have found our ‘local habitation and a name’.

Just one problem: what shall we do with ‘Bro Duncan’s guest-house’? It would make some child a lovely play-house, having been beautifully made; but whoever would like it must dismantle/collect it themselves. It is listed for sale on ebay (and Bro Duncan has never actually been in it!): http://bit.ly/NlDOgO (link opens in new window).

'Bro Duncan's Guesthouse': the play-house in the garden
‘Bro Duncan’s Guesthouse’: the play-house in the garden
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail