Vocations Crisis? What Crisis?

Recently, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Benedictine, I was told it was all right to blog about Easter and so on but better to stay off controversial subjects. Taken out of context, the remark might have seemed dismissive or even patronising. It wasn’t, but it has encouraged me to try to re-think how we approach the idea of vocation in the Church. Do we play safe and spiritualise it so that God does everything and the human person involved is reduced to a mere cypher? Or do we forget God entirely and concentrate on the human person so much that we become mired in an unhelpful kind of ‘vocational psychology’ that leads nowhere? Is there a way of reconciling the two, so that we are honest about the dynamic of vocation, not as it was in the past or as it might be in the future, but as it is now in 2019, with all that that implies?

I’ve written so much about vocation over the years that it is plain where I stand. Of course God takes the initiative, but there has to be a response — and that’s where the trouble comes. No vocation, whether to marriage, priesthood, consecrated life, singlehood, or whatever, is roses and rapture all the way, nor does any vocation exist in isolation from others or from the times in which we live. To ignore the demands of a particular vocation as it is now is as misleading as failing to speak about its blessings. I wonder how many parish priests will dutifully preach about the need for more priests this morning but dodge the question of how badly the Church’s reputation has been damaged by the revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up and the difficulty of living with that. Then again, how many will dare to speak of the joy their own experience of priesthood has brought them? A loss of confidence only too easily conveys itself to others. It is there, in that loss of confidence, that I would locate any ‘crisis of vocations’ today. I think I would go further and argue that any such crisis is really of our own making. We do not quite trust God to see us through without what has become familiar to us.

Among religious, I think the loss of confidence is sometimes palpable. Communities wax and wane (not always in that order, be it noted) and it probably does not help when those who have lived a particular kind of vocation for fifty or sixty years are blithely informed that they are either not traditional enough for some or too traditional for others — ‘traditional’ being one of those words used to signify both approval and disapproval. Then again, it is easy to latch onto  one or other aspect of consecrated life and make it the be-all and end-all. Among women, the wearing or not wearing of a habit or using a particular form of prayer is sometimes used as a test of orthodoxy, with results that can be comical when not disastrous. Again, it is our unease in the face of the loss of the familar that is the problem. We know the Spirit is always doing something new, but when confronted with the new, we are apt to take fright and draw back rather than seeing it as an opportunity, a genuine turning-point (which is what a crisis is). I can only say that most communities I know are making a good attempt to be true to their calling in the Church despite the difficulties and discouragement they sometimes encounter.

With that mention of the Church, we come to the heart of the matter. People sometimes feel  they are ’second best’ because they haven’t become priests or religious but discovered in the course of formation that they were meant for something else. Or they torture themselves because they have left active ministry or their order/congregation and the Church treats them with ambivalence, sometimes even suspicion.  I think myself that the important thing is to find one’s place in the Church because that is how we follow Christ, as Church. To be members of the Church is what we are all called to be. What membership involves will differ for each of us. Prayer, generosity and fidelity are required of us all, whatever form our  vocation takes. I have no hesitation in saying that being a Benedictine has been the supreme blessing of my life. I have no difficulty in encouraging others to become Benedictines themselves, but I would never hide from anyone the fact that to surrender oneself into the hands of the living God is to surrender oneself into a consuming fire. And fire, as we know, has its own way of dealing with things.

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The Persecution of Christians

The bishop of Truro’s report on the persecution of Christians contained no surprises for those who keep au fait with such matters. Unless memory plays me false, I seem to remember someone remarking forty years ago that a couple of lartge jets would be all that would be needed to remove the entire Christian population of Israel. The situation today in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, India, China and many other places, however, is not merely one of petty persecution and decline but of ruthless violence intended to exterminate every Christian. Church leaders can say all they like about how wrong it is, but unless and until politicians recognize both the injustice and the danger it poses to many of the values we hold dear as a free society, it is difficult to see how matters can improve.

To some, Christians are merely reaping the consequences of colonialism and whatever they suffer is justified by reference to that. Identifying Christianity with colonialism has always seemed to me slightly questionable, but I accept that many have shied away from a defence of modern-day Christians because of what happened in the past. The trouble is, our historical perspective is often faulty or, at the very least, partial. We rightly condemn the evil of slavery, for example, while being remarkably ambivalent about the kinds of exploitation that exist today. It is easy to condemn the people of the past, but making those of the present pay is morally dubious. Where does responsibility lie? Can we really judge the past by the standards of the present?

The University of Cambridge is just embarking on a two-year investigation into its connection with slavery and the slave trade. It will be interesting to see what conclusions are drawn. My first reaction was that it was one of those politically correct exercises that fosters guilt but achieves little of substance. It is clearly not meant to be a historical investigation as such, and from what I have read it is not concerned with the modern forms of exploitation many of us find troubling. The nearest parallel I can find is with those public enquiries into the perceived failures of the army, police, medical profession, social workers and others that centre on the sadness and distress suffered by individuals or groups of people whose lives have been turned upside down by what they have experienced, but with this difference — we can’t change the past; we can’t ‘make it better’ for those who were enslaved or who were cruelly mistreated.

In the case of modern-day Christians, I think we face a particular difficulty. There are those who wish to eradicate Christianity and deliberately target Christians. Frequently, and especially if they are Westerners, they have very sketchy ideas about what Christians actually believe, but the one thing they all know is that Christians are meant to be forgiving. No matter how harsh the treatment meted out, no matter what suffering is inflicted, even to the loss of life in the most brutal and painful circumstances, the Christian must forgive. I am, as you may imagine, far from being impartial, but I believe that the forgiveness of Christians enduring persecution — at this very minute, remember — is not only worthy of record but a witness the whole world needs. We pray for them, of course, but perhaps we should glory in them even more for they show Christ to the world in a way that we more lily-livered types never can. They demonstrate by their fidelity and their refusal to hate that there is a better way; that the world can be transformed by grace.

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An Easter Drenched in Blood: 2019

As I was posting this morning’s prayer tweet, news came in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. Churches and hotels have been bombed and at least 137* are known to be dead. It was a bloody and brutal act, and there are fears that there is more to come. Yet we continue to sing ‘Alleluia’, to proclaim Christ’s triumph over sin and death, to assert that love and forgiveness are better than hatred and cruelty. Are we fools, living in a cosy world of make-believe; or are we clear-sighted, conscious of the reality of things and refusing to be daunted by evil or the lack of humanity we discover in ourselves and in others?

Note, I say in ourselves as well as others. If our pilgrimage to Easter has taught us anything, it must be that we are each capable of the most horrific evil. We are sinners in need of redemption; weak and fallible beings in need of a Saviour. This morning, as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, we pray for all Christian people, that we may have not only the courage of our faith but its compassion and forgiveness, too. So we can sing our ‘alleluias’, confident that the Risen Christ continues to be the source of our unity and peace, for he has shed his own blood for us and lives now to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. May he do so now, that the Father of all goodness may see and love in those dead and injured Sri Lankans ‘Christ lovely in limbs not his.’
ªnow 310.

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Drifting from the Shore

For the past few months life at the monastery has been distinctly challenging. About Cor Orans and its implications I’ll write at a more suitable time. It is enough to say that it continues to cause a great deal of heartache and eats into our time and resources in a way many find baffling. We’ve also had a lot of administration to deal with that has taken us well beyond our comfort zone being both unfamiliar and time-critical; and there has been the problem of my health. I have just returned from a fortnight in hospital, delighted to find that I am still alive and humbled by the generosity and kindness with which I have been treated (to say nothing of the skill and devotion of the team at the Churchill Hospital). It has made me reflect on what our Lenten journey is about. When life is pared down to the essentials and cannot be presumed upon to continue, one is forced to face what at other times one may try to hide from — and the utter transcendence of God is one of those things. But big words and big concepts can themselves be a form of evasion, so let’s think more directly about Lent.

We can take Lent too seriously. By which I mean that we think what we do is what matters: our prayers, our fasts, our almsgiving. It is all about me. But, of course, it isn’t. It is when our plans are upset and we find ourselves drifting from the shore into unexpected currents that we begin to learn what it is really about. Forget that pledge to say 150 psalms standing in the sea as the Celtic monks did — a smile at someone who is being tiresome may actually be harder but I guarantee it will bring its own reward. If the Lent book lies unread and fasting fell down at the first chocolate muffin hurdle, don’t waste time feeling guilty. Try an act of kindness or generosity that you weren’t expecting but which has come your way. In other words, don’t take Lent seriously in the sense that it has to fit your programme but take it very seriously indeed in the sense that it has to fit God’s programme.

This is the time of year when we are asked to pray especially for those preparing for baptism or reception into Full Communion at Easter; for those who are to be married, ordained or make religious profession during the Easter season; those who will be confirmed at Pentecost, and so on — all joyful things. It is also a time to pray for the dying, for those who are grieving while everyone else is singing Alleluia, for all the sadness that humanity endures. The only way we can do that is to allow our prayer to become one with that of the praying Christ. During these last few days before entering on Holy Week, therefore, may I suggest that we look closely at how Jesus spent this peak period of his life on earth? There was solemnity, yes, but also light-heartedness with friends. Our Lenten journey must follow the same pattern. So, do not waste time over failures, as they may appear to us, but concentrate on the ‘now’ of Lent. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord. What is asked of us is that we listen and respond today — not as we might have yesterday or as we might do in the future, but today.

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Is God to Blame?

As news of the terrible events in Christchurch, New Zealand, spread yesterday we noticed a huge increase in the use of our email prayerline. Many emails were simply requests for prayer for all who had been affected, but a considerable number expressed other concerns. There were those who demanded to know how God could permit such a thing; others who wanted to proclaim that they had given up on God since God had clearly given up on them; and a few who used the opportunity to ridicule our beliefs with a spattering of swear-words and wholly unoriginal gibes.

When people are hurting they need a hug, not an argument; and it is my belief that everyone who wrote in was indeed hurting. Some just didn’t know what to do with their hurt. The questions they asked deserve an answer, however, though I know the answers I’ll give will not be acceptable to everyone.

Why did God not prevent the massacre in Christchurch? That is a perfectly legitimate question but it takes us into territory many find uncomfortable. We can say all we like about God having dignified us with the gift of free will and of his permitting us to use or abuse that freedom as we choose. It doesn’t mean much to someone mourning the death of someone they love. The fact that it happens to be true is difficult to grasp, but we must try because it confirms the truly loving nature of God. He respects us; he doesn’t treat us as mere robots he can control at will. In fact, God isn’t interested in controlling us. He has given us all the guidance we need to live happy and fulfilled lives, but he respects the choices we make. If we choose evil, so be it. I call that one of the hard truths of Christianity: the realisation that God is a God of free people, not slaves. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of that truth. God gave his only Son into our hands, and that is how we treated him, by inflicting death on him.

So, what about those who feel they want to give up on God because they believe he has given up on them? Don’t we all feel like that at times? Didn’t Jesus feel the same on the Cross when he cried out with the psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. We have to be honest about our anger and despair and let God handle the pain we can’t. Because, of course, it is pain that makes us think and feel that way. If we didn’t care, if we were completely indifferent, we wouldn’t bother, would we?

In this blank, bleak universe I am describing, is there anywhere we can find help or comfort? I think there is. The Communion of Saints is not confined to those already in heaven and who we may safely assume are praying for those of us on earth. It includes the Church Militant, our ‘even Chrstians’ as Julian of Norwich loved to describe them. No matter how dark the events that take place in the world, no matter the depths of evil and depravity that deform the human heart, someone, somewhere is praying to let the light of Christ into the situation. Monks and nuns typically devote their lives to this prayer. We do not claim to be experts; we do not claim to achieve anything; but I believe that God does use our efforts in some way because ultimately it is not we who pray but the Holy Spirit who prays in us.

This morning many are feeling drained and unhappy. There are several people on life-support as a result of yesterday’s shootings; others are mourning the sudden loss of someone they love. We pray for them as we pray for all — for a chink of light to come into the darkness, for hope to take the place of despair. Our ideas of God are frequently too little. May we know how great he is, how involved he is even though he does not act as we would want him to act. In short, may we know how much he loves us.

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Murder in Christchurch, New Zealand

News of the murderous attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, began to come in as I was listening to the World Service.* Even now, the details are not clear but what we do know is sickening. The sheer brutality of the attackers with their live-streaming of their actions recalls some of the worst horrors of IS, but at least one of the attackers appears to be an Australian citizen with hard-right views on immigration. No one has a monopoly on hatred. We struggle to find words adequate to the shock and disgust we feel, but there are none that can really express our revulsion or sadness. Feelings of anger and rage bubble to the surface, but what are we to do with them?

As it happens, today’s Mass readings provide us with a kind of commentary on our own reactions. Ezekiel 18. 21–28 reminds us that God does not see or judge as we see and judge. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but desires their conversion. While we thirst for vengeance and call it ‘justice’, God yearns for the sinner’s reconciliation. Similarly, the gospel, Matthew 5.20–26, contains a hard teaching about being reconciled with our brother if he has something against us — not, please note, if we have something against him. In other words, God sets the bar of compassion and forgiveness very high. On the Cross his Son showed how very costly it would prove.

Today many of us will have difficulty reconciling our desire to follow Christ’s lead with our feelings of anger and horror. The trouble is, we have no choice. We must forgive; we must not thirst for vengeance. Part of our problem is that we tend to usurp God’s role when it comes to judging, but forget him entirely when it comes to forgiving. Forgiveness, we must remember, is never a once-for-all act. It is a repeated act, a constant dashing against Christ of every negative thought and feeling. The New Zealand authorities will have to investigate, prosecute and meet out punishment for the vile crime committed in Christchurch, but all of us have the duty to do what we can to show compassion and bring about reconciliation. Just now there are many grieving hearts we cannot comfort save though prayer, but let us make sure that we do that at least.

*A side effect of cancer is that sleep patterns are disturbed. The World Service can be a great help to the insomniac.

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Cardinal Pell’s Conviction

I have no idea whether Cardinal Pell is guilty or not. I must either believe that he did indeed do the terrible things he is accused of, or that there has been a grave failure on the part of the Australian justice system. Neither is an attractive proposition. The reports of both accusations and trial left me thinking how very strange some aspects were, but more than that I cannot say. I did not attend the trial, I cannot weigh the evidence, though I can see some of the consequences for the Church in Australia, and that gives me pause. There have been so many shocking revelations about the past, with the Christian Brothers coming in for particular censure, that one wonders how the Church has survived at all. Then one remembers the faith and goodwill of the ordinary, decent Catholic and is reminded, yet again, that it is the grace of the laos, the people of God, that draws others to Christ and keeps them there with him.

This morning the Church in Australia looks battered and bruised. As we pray for all who have been affected by Cardinal Pell’s conviction, not least the cardinal himself and those involved in his trial, let us pray especially for those ordinary, decent Catholics, that they may not lose heart. Our Lenten journey always contains twists and turns not of our making but, if we are steadfast, we shall reach Jerusalem at last and, like Hilton’s pilgrim, know the joy of being with Christ.

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In the Desert Again — and Hungry, Too

We are back in the desert again, but this time not under the velvety star-studded skies of Advent but in the blazing noon-day heat of Lent, alongside a weary Jesus who, after forty days and nights of fasting, is being tempted by Satan.

There is a line in today’s gospel (Luke 4.1–13) I find arresting : ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ I wonder how often we hurry over the fact of Jesus’ hunger in our eagerness to reflect that temptation always assails us when we are at our weakest. From there it is but a short step to stripping the gospel of much of its power. Turning stones into bread is one of those miracles that hasn’t much appeal for us because most of us in the West never experience real hunger. We are much more interested in power and wealth and may even experience a frisson of excitement at the thought that we might be deluded into believing that the devil might grant us what God will not. Yet a hungry Jesus has something important to teach us about Lent and its traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, especially, I think, fasting.

Fasting has, unfortunately, got a bad press nowadays. It has become synonymous with dieting (which it isn’t) or associated with things that have nothing to do with it (e.g. people ‘fasting’ from Social Media). Very often it has been reduced to a token foregoing of some luxury or indulgence such as wine or chocolate, or the Christian fast is compared unfavourably with the Moslem by those unfamiliar with either. There is a vague idea that fasting somehow unleashes spiritual power, but that has become mixed up with and diluted by the notion that it is primarily a penance, an expiation of sin rather than a means of drawing closer to God.

Now, please do not mistake me. I am quite sure that any offering made out of love of the Lord is immensely pleasing to him, but I would argue that we all need to think more deeply about fasting as the Church has understood and practised it for centuries. I know that some Catholic commentators have already begun to make the same point, but I hope that a word or two from a monastic perspective may be helpful, too.

Fasting is meant to make us hungry. Obvious, I know, but how often do we forget that! Hunger does not mean a passing feeling of emptiness that is easily put right or mere boredom with eating plain food. No, it means actual hunger: the gnawing pain of being utterly empty, weak. It is such a powerful thing that the Church has always been very careful about the rules she sets for it. The young, the old and the sick are not permitted to fast with the rigour allowed to healthy adults in their prime, and even they are required to be prudent (folly, you remember, is a sin).

In the monastery those who fall into the category of healthy adults fast every day during Lent (Sundays are not included). That means that what we eat and when we eat are carefully regulated, and as Lent progresses, our hunger grows. By the time Holy Saturday comes, the prospect of soft white bread and butter on Easter morning is sweet torture. But we aren’t fasting in order to prove that we are spiritual athletes or out of some masochistic desire to make our bodies suffer. We are fasting to become closer to Jesus, and our fast is not a matter we decide for ourselves but a ‘given’, something determined by the superior of the community who must always take into account individual weaknesses and the needs of the community as a whole. The monastic fast is thus never rigorous enough for some though, if my own experience is anything to go by, it isn’t the easiest of disciplines.

Fasting makes us realise our dependence on God in a way that many of us in the West have forgotten. It makes us aware of our bodies and the fact that it is the whole person that is redeemed, not just the mind or soul. Above all, it makes the link between prayer and almsgiving clear and direct. We cannot fast properly unless we pray; fasting is not doing its work in us if it does not make us want to pray more and to be more generous towards others. ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ What a tragedy it would be if, at the end of Lent, Jesus was still hungering for our love and devotion.

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Not Speaking Out but Praying

Every day seems to bring further revelations of corruption, abuse or sheer incompetence, both within the Church and outside it. Collectively, we are suffering from an ever-mounting sense of impotence. What can we do about any of it? Even the three-day conference on the protection of minors scheduled to begin at the Vatican tomorrow is being greeted with low expectations. The truth is, whether we are talking about the abuse of power in the Catholic Church or unreal expectations of Brexit negotiations or anything else, the role of the ordinary person seems to be negligible. We simply don’t count.

I believe that is defeatist because it overlooks two very important points. The first is that we have to speak up for what we know, or at least believe, to be true. That can be lonely and difficult, but it is essential. Truth demands no less. The second is that we have to pray — and the prayer we make must engage the whole of our being. We must wrestle with God as Jacob did with the angel throughout the long night of doubt and fear. If we do not, we shall never see the dawn.

I myself feel I have no words left after the most recent allegations of abuse committed against deaf children in the Americas and cover-ups of abuse against religious sisters in Poland. That leaves me with prayer as my only option, so to say. Thank God one does not have to be important or clever or anything else in order to pray. One has only to want to be with God and do his will. Simple, really, for only God can save us from ourselves.

Virtual Vigil
We shall hold a Virtual Vigil tonight between 7.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. for the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Vatican’s meeting on the protection of minors. No set form of readings/prayers. Please join us in spirit if you can.

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The Four Woes

Reading today’s gospel (Luke 6.17, 20 – 26 ) reminded me how rarely we seem to advert to the less comfortable aspects of Jesus’ teaching — unless, alas, we want to point out the shortcomings of others. The Four Woes are a case in point. We lap up the Beatitudes but hearing that those enjoying wealth, abundance, a largely untroubled existence (laughter) and a good reputation are already having their reward is tough. Most of us living in the West are rich compared with those in the developing world. We have enough to eat; our problems are relatively small; and most of us would admit to an enviable existence for which we should give thanks more often than we grumble. But it is that repeated ‘Alas’ that troubles us. Not enough to make us change, perhaps, but certainly enough to make us feel less secure.

One of the greatest obstacles to holiness is not sin but mediocrity — the feeling that we’re basically all right, Jack, and have no need to overdo things. What if I were to say to you that being satisfied with the status quo, being complacent, is actually a temptation? It may not be sinful in itself but, as St Thomas remarked, there are things which, though not sinful in themselves, partake of the nature of sin and can easily lead to sin.

Today, as we listen to the gospel, it would be good to let it act as an examination of conscience. How far do we accept our shortcomings and moral failures as ‘just the way we are’? How often do we think about the way in which we use the gifts and resources given to us — not just material goods but health, happiness and everything that makes for what we regard as a worthwhile existence? I can assure you I am asking myself these questions this morning.

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