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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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
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Grandparents

The feast of SS Joachim and Anne, names traditionally assigned to the parents of Mary, mother of our Lord, reminds us that Jesus was a member of a family. His looks, his traits, his temperament, all were influenced by his genetic inheritance and the experience of belonging to that particular Jewish family. As with all families, his inheritance must have been a mixture of good and bad.

That means that Jesus was not necessarily ‘perfect’ by human standards: he was not necessarily the most handsome man who ever lived (could we even agree on what constitutes handsome?), the most intelligent, the most eloquent, the most gifted. His smile might have been crooked, his nose bent; he might have had difficulty learning Hebrew, an irritating way of clearing his throat before speaking, a thousand and one little habits we might think of as imperfections. And yet, as Son of God, he was perfect, perfect in all the ways that matter to God: in love, fidelity and obedience. These too he must have learned from his family, for he did not come into the world fully-formed, so to say. He came as a baby, with all a baby’s fragility and vulnerability. He had to learn how to be a man, and his first teachers were his family.

The man who showed such courage and determination in the face of opposition, such compassion and wisdom in his teaching; who was easy in the presence of women and small children and all those on the margins of society; who possessed in abundance the gift of friendship, was a grandson as well as son. What precisely he owed to Joachim and Anne we cannot say for certain, but today we should pray with gratitude for all grandparents, for they pass on to their grandchildren more than they know.

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Exhaustion Point

Yesterday we finally admitted what had been staring us in the face for the past few weeks: we had reached, not exhaustion point exactly, but somewhere on the road to exhaustion where the warning signs were plain to see. So, instead of doing all the things we thought we should (unpacking, answering correspondence, getting the monastery accounts up to date, scything down the savannah that has sprung up overnight in the garden, sorting out the 1001 things that have to be sorted), still less all the things other people thought we should do (complete as appropriate), we decided to do very little.

The monastic version of very little takes quite a lot of time: prayer and reading, Mass at Belmont, which was beautifully celebrated, with some fine singing from the boys and girls of St Richard’s School, and a community meal (the first properly cooked one for a few days), but it was not taxing in the way that working against the clock is taxing; nor was the tiredness beyond our control. We had not, in fact, reached exhaustion point.

There are many people who have reached, or even gone beyond, exhaustion point. Work, the pressure of caring for others — children, elderly parents, perhaps a husband or wife with severe disabilities — trying to struggle by on too little money or in the face of hostility and bullying: all these can bring people to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. For us, the solution to our temporary exhaustion was easy: we just switched off for the day. For others, it is not so easy; and sadly, it is often the people who most need help who are least able to ask for it or least likely to receive help if they do.

One of the most sobering statistics I have read for a long while concerns the number of children in the U.K. who are the principal carers for their parents. At an age when most of us were probably leaving our bedrooms in a mess and flouncing out of the house ‘at all hours’, these young people are cooking, cleaning, tending to their parents in ways that properly belong to adults. There are systems in place that are supposed to pinpoint children at risk, but we all know that much goes on behind the walls of our houses that is hidden from view. And in countries not so blessed with security and material wealth as our own, children face even worse problems.

Perhaps today, if we are beginning the working week feeling a little tired and jaded, we could spare a thought and a prayer for those who are truly exhausted; for the children coping with adult challenges; for all who are weary and see no hope of an end to their weariness.

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