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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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