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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It Won’t Go Away

The first email I opened yesterday was a questionnaire from the Conference of Religious with yet more information required for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and a slightly apologetic request for more donations towards legal costs. It was a powerful reminder that IICSA still has a lot of work to do, and those who keep hoping that the subject will somehow ‘go away’ are deluding themselves.

It can be difficult to know how to respond to those who simply condemn everyone with any kind of connection with Catholicism. It can be even harder to know how to respond to those who are more selective in their condemnations but who are (understandably in my view) inclined to be sceptical about the protestations of clergy and religious whose brethren have been found guilty of terrible sins and crimes. It is as though Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are now to be defined in terms of sexual abuse.

I think we need to reflect on that. In my experience, limited though that be, the popular conception of the Church is very far from my own. Where I see love and generosity, glimpses of the transcendent and a holiness that cannot be denied, others see weakness, self-indulgence and a quarrelsome hypocrisy. I am certainly not advocating any kind of PR exercise, but perhaps we should pay more attention to how others see us and try to learn from it. Every Christian, every Catholic, is called to win others to Christ and we cannot do that if we allow the popular narrative to predominate. We need, more than ever before, the grace of conversion. We must become what we claim we are called to be: icons of Christ in a world desperately in need of healing.

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Silver Surfers and the Church

Many years ago, when our community was something of a pioneer in its use of internet technologies — everything from videos to online conferences — we tended to assume that ‘the net’ was where we’d encounter young people; and, by and large, it was. As time has gone on, however, we have come to appreciate that there is another group the Church sometimes forgets: the so-called Silver Surfers. Although some older people still feel a little awkward when it comes to contemporary technology, there are many more who don’t; and they have both the money and the leisure to make the most of what the Church offers online. So what does the Church offer?

I think the only honest answer must be: a mixed bag. There are lots of blogs (of unequal value) and resource sites (likewise), plus livestreams of worship and news outlets. But is there anything of particular value to the older person, that speaks to the concerns we tend to have as we grow older? What would be helpful? I ask because we have a couple of new web sites waiting to be launched once our position vis-à-vis Cor Orans is clearer, but I realised yesterday that they need some re-writing precisely because we haven’t done a very good job of thinking about older users. I would welcome any thoughts you have on the subject, bearing in mind that ours are monastic sites rather than general purpose ones.

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Why I am a Catholic

Not, please note, why I am still a Catholic. That would need a different kind of post altogether. No, I am happy to say that at the heart of my faith is the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I believe everything the Catholic Church teaches about him to be true. That is why I am a Catholic and, please God, will remain a Catholic for the rest of my days.

Many readers will be disappointed by such an answer. They would really like a little bit of angst somewhere, or at the very least a stirring account of struggles with intellectual difficulties and existential doubt. I am not saying that faith comes more easily to me than it does to others, nor am I suggesting that I inhabit an untroubled upland where all is peace and light. The point is, nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare with the infinite truth and goodness of God. Once one has a sense of that, nothing less than God himself will do, and nothing less than God will one find. That is why I can identify with Walter Hilton’s pilgrim, who was determined to be at Jerusalem, no matter what terrors menaced him on the way, no matter how many wrong turns he made, no matter how uncongenial he found some of his companions (or how uncongenial they found him, understood).

Faith, for me, means keeping one’s gaze fixed on God, or rather, where one knows he will be found. Most of the time, of course, he is hidden from sight, which is why Benedict talks always about searching for God. But a glimpse of the true north is enough to set one’s course. Mistakes are made, alas, and one goes forward and backwards and wobbles along and gets stuck in all kinds of unprofitable situations. That is when grace steps in and puts right what one has managed to get wrong. It isn’t easy, and I think it gets harder as one goes on. Little by little, one is stripped of all the ‘comforts’ one formerly relied upon. The spell-binding liturgy of my youth is long gone; the churches are bleaker, emptier; the monastic world that has been my home for nearly forty years has changed beyond recognition. But, and it is an important but, God has not changed. He leads us deeper and deeper into the mystery of his being; and who could ask for more?

So, I am a Catholic, and glad and grateful for what I have been given. What I call the truth of Catholicism is something I experience daily, and it is a source of great joy. It is a pity that we tend to think of both truth and joy in largely negative terms — truth too often reduced to meaning an exposé of the latest criminality, joy nothing more than the absence of pain. A very little thought should convince us how wrong that is because truth and joy are ultimately a person, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he accompanies us wherever we are, including our darkest, most painful moments. So, I end where I began; but, thanks be to God, a little further along the way, I trust.

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The Abuse of Nuns and Sisters in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’s recent acknowledgement of the sexual abuse of female religious by Catholic clergy should have surprised no-one (see, for example, the account given here: https://is.gd/FoGNnU). I can remember our own D. Teresa Rodrigues, who was Secretary of Aide Inter-Monastique for many years, waxing wroth on the subject. It is one of those scandals everyone is aware of, professes to abhor but doesn’t actually do anything about because there is no reward for doing so. If male, it doesn’t advance one up the clerical career ladder; if female, it doesn’t endear one to one’s religious superiors and lays one open to all kinds of sanctions; if lay, one has more than enough to worry about with the terrible scandal of the sexual abuse of children. I think it’s worth pointing out, however, that although the pope directed our attention to sexual abuse, that is only one aspect of the matter — a manifestation of another and more general abuse. At the heart of it all is the low opinion the institutional Church has of nuns and sisters and women generally.

The patristic tradition and modern versions of it: motherhood
As soon as I say that, I know many will protest that the Church holds women in high honour. Some will point to the long patristic tradition honouring Mary, the greatest of all women. Others will quote more or less sugary texts telling us what wonderful beings we are and how privileged we are to serve in our maternal roles. There is my first problem: not the patristic tradition itself, but the shrunken version of it that we are often given, which sees all women through a single lens, that of mother. Not all women are mothers, just as not all men are fathers; but the Church has never sought to define all men in terms of fatherhood in the way she has often seemed to define all women in terms of motherhood.

Motherhood is a great vocation, make no mistake, but it can be reduced to a caricature of itself, to a kind of ‘flower-pot’ role in the life of others. My own mother summed this up rather crisply when she said, ‘Blame Mummy for everything that goes wrong, but don’t give her credit for anything that goes right!’ Fifty years on, and I feel the truth of her words more and more. It is (comparatively) easy to dismiss women as being somehow of less account, especially in a Church where priesthood and rulership are reserved to men. Most of the women who read this blog will have their own stories to tell of occasions when they encountered attempted put-downs or were dismissed unheard. A shrug and a smile and choosing which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t is probably the response most of us make most of the time. But I wonder whether we should be addressing another question that is becoming more and more urgent. Are the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church properly understood?

The rights and responsibilities of women: the exercise of power and authority
There was a time when arguments about the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church, whether religious or lay, were glossed over by reference to ‘cultural circumstances’. We were told that the future growth of the Church lay in Africa and Asia, where women were culturally subservient, and it would be wrong for the Church as a whole to upset this order of things. So, please would Western women shut up, say their prayers and do as the men said. I exaggerate, of course, but even the furthest regions of the Vatican must now be aware that society is changing fast, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa and Asia. With better education comes greater autonomy, which may be one reason why many absolutist regimes try to restrict access to education, especially for women and girls. Where women have a better grasp of their rights and responsibilities, it is impossible for the institutional Church to go on behaving as it always has. It must actually engage with women; and that can be very difficult for those who grew up in a different world or who have had no contact with women, other than as secretaries or servants, for most of their lives.

Of course, where the Church does not promote or even protect the rights and responsibilities of women, we end up with a paternalistic system which works well enough until it is placed under scrutiny, when it shows how very flawed it is. The exercise of power and authority will always be viewed with some suspicion by those who have no power themselves, but one must ask whether women in the Church need to be quite as invisible as they have become. Following the publication of Cor Orans, I have had to do quite a lot of work on canon law and I have found sobering the way in which female religious are regarded as being ‘disposable’ — their persons, their property, even their mission being subject to control by those who may have no first-hand experience of what they are dealing with. They are in some ways infantilized. This is very far from religious obedience, which should lead to a growing maturity in Christ. What has gone wrong? Do we take the easy way out, and blame the women themselves, or do we ask ourselves what in the structures of the Church could be responsible for bringing about such a situation?

A personal and tentative conclusion
I think myself that a reluctance to engage with women except on a top-down basis has led to a kind of blindness in the Church that is now disabling her more than ever. I don’t believe, for one moment, that popes, bishops and clergy set out to do women down or treat them with contempt; but I do think that unexamined attitudes have led to us getting further and further away from the gospel. The authoritarian exercise of power makes people concentrate on the power, not on what it is intended to bring about. I am not alone in thinking that the institutional Church has not yet really taken on board how serious is the sexual abuse scandal, and how inadequate appear the various measures suggested for its resolution. The reluctance to include women in the processes for examination of the problem is telling. It is a kind of ‘own goal’ for the Church.

We have to have law; we have to have regulations for large and complex organisations like the Catholic Church; but I am not convinced that we have to have the kind of laws and regulations we currently have. If one part of the Church has no voice — if it is always the part to which things are done, rather than engaged and participant — then there is bound to be a problem with how it is viewed. If female religious are basically of no account, then of course they can be treated as children. And the horror of it is, that we see exactly where failing to treat children as we should has led us all.

Postscript
I have deliberately distinguished between the institutional Church, for which I use the neutral ‘it’, and the Church as a whole for which I use the feminine ‘she’. It’s a crude distinction, but it is useful. As always, I don’t want my male readers, especially the clerical ones, to feel they are being blamed for the difficulties I discuss. They know how much they are loved and valued, and many share my sense of frustration with the way in which the Church appears to be failing to address important questions. I’ve tried to write for those who don’t have much history or canon law but who believe in the gospel and want to right the wrongs they see. As a Church, we preach peace and justice but without real justice within the Church, can there be genuine peace? Although I am writing about the exercise of power and authority, I am not writing about ordination which is theologically a much more nuanced question than many are prepared to admit. So, please, no ‘If only the Catholic Church would ordain women’ responses. That is not what is at issue here.

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What Price Unity and Justice?

The first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly a trending topic on Twitter right now. There is much more interest in Brexit, the contents of that mysterious letter from North Korea and the Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident. Yet the theme chosen for this year’s reflections, ‘Justice, justice only shall you follow,’ (from Deuteronomy 16. 20), is certainly worth thinking about in a wider context.

For the Church, justice is a matter of right order* —the obedience of faith— and can never be an optional extra, something to which we pay lip-service but blithely ignore in practice. It is willed by God, and the full force of Christ’s prayer for unity must be felt by each and every one of us before it can take effect in our lives. As Christians we must pray and work for unity, which can only be achieved if we are prepared to let go of every personal and institutional obstacle we have put in its way. As I have argued elsewhere, that does not mean ‘lowest common denominator’ unity. Justice, right order, both require the foundation of truth and love, and we do not build well if we try to minimise these. At the same time, we must recognize that we put up barriers only grace can topple.

So, how do Brexit, Kim Yong-chol and the Duke of Edinburgh fit in? Let’s take Brexit first. If the British media are to be believed, our politicians suspect their E.U. counterparts of harbouring all kinds of wicked designs and knavish tricks intended to make life tough for the U.K. The possibility of exiting the E.U. without a deal (significantly, no one wants to call it an agreement) must be maintained, say some, as a bargaining counter. Do we really think the other members of the E.U. are, essentially, duplicitous? If so, on what grounds? Is it just to impute ultimate bad faith to another, because that is surely what one is doing if one does not accept that all parties are trying to attain what is best for everyone.

In the same way, diplomatic manoeuvres have to be viewed with caution, especially when one considers the history between the U.S.A. and North Korea, but speculation about what is intended can sometimes mislead. Justice requires a degree of open-mindedness that can be difficult to maintain. No doubt there will be much reading between the lines and calculation of risk and advantage, but it is in the world’s interest to give peace a chance, surely? And as for the Duke of Edinburgh, it seems everyone has rushed to conclude that he was at fault and should now hang up his car keys, along with every elderly driver in Britain today. Doesn’t justice demand that we wait to hear the police verdict on responsibility? One can’t deny that age does have a bearing on road accidents, but is it only the elderly who are at fault? Don’t the statistics suggest that the young are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents?

You may think I have strayed too far from the theme of Christian unity, but the point is that Christian unity does not exist in a vacuum, anymore than justice does. Both have to be lived; both have practical effects on and in society; and both exact a price. One of the questions we each need to ask ourselves this morning is, what price are we prepared to pay for a just society and for the unity of the Church. The inequalities we encounter every day in a world where some enjoy abundance while others starve cannot be brushed under some mental carpet, nor can the attitudes we adopt be allowed to run on unexamined. We are responsible beings. As we pray for unity and justice, let us remember that. We are responsible beings.

  • see Gregory VII on the meaning of iustitia, passim.
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Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

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When and How Should We Express Moral Outrage?

I wasn’t going to blog today because I have often written about St Thomas of Canterbury, and I am very keen to catch up on my ‘thank-yous’ to our Christmas benefactors. Three things have made me change my mind. The first was hearing a friend waxing indignant about the story behind Philomena, the second was finding a tweet in which the tweeter asked me, rather aggressively I thought, what I was doing about the two migrant children who have died in U.S. custody recently. In the latter case, I think either the tweeter assumed I must be a U.S. citizen or was hoping that by tweeting me she would capture my Twitter ‘audience’. In both cases, however, the moral indignation was plain, and I felt there was little I could do to assuage either person. I turned to Facebook and there found one of my online friends, whom I don’t know very well, complaining that if he expressed his horror of abortion most people tolerated his views because he is known to be a Catholic, and being pro-life is expected of Catholics. If, however, he expressed other views in line with Church teaching, especially some that are less well known, he seemed to attract a great deal of moral outrage, often expressed in very personal terms.

Now, it’s easy for me to say I agree that the treatment of many young Irish girls in the mother-and-baby homes of the past was appalling and that I am troubled by what we know of the treatment of young migrants detained by U.S. authorities, because that is no more than the truth. I don’t regard myself as personally responsible nor, crucially, do I see any way of helping other than through prayer and the financial aid the community provides refugees and migrants. I’m a Benedictine nun, not a religious sister belonging to any of the Orders or Congregations that ran the mother-and-baby homes, and I’m British not a U.S. citizen. But none of that will help either of my interlocutors, nor, I suspect, would anything similar help my FB friend to deal with his critics. We are facing the phenomenon of moral outrage seeking a target and not being sure where to find it. It is akin to the frequent demands, ‘Someone must pay for this’ and ‘heads must roll’ whenever incompetence or worse is discovered in politics, business or any public service. Just think of the comments on the police that followed the Gatwick Airport drone chaos!

Some of us probably try to channel our sense of outrage through letters and emails to those we think are in a position to change things, or we may use social media to try to draw attention to the wrong we believe needs righting. The difficulty, in most cases, is not letting our sense of outrage run away with us, so that we waste our fire, as it were, in a scatter-gun attack that simply annoys those caught in it. St Thomas of Canterbury (yes, I got him in!) was very astute in the quarrel he picked with Henry II and in his manner of conducting it. He tried to remain Henry’s friend while clearly demonstrating that some of their old shared behaviours were no longer acceptable now that he was a bishop. Henry, alas, felt a deep sense of personal betrayal as well as fury at the idea that the Church had liberties not under his control. We know how the story ends, and how a few years later a compromise with Rome made the quarrel between king and archbishop seem irrelevant. But we are left with the memory of a brave man, who stood up for what he believed and gave his life for it without calling down imprecations on the heads of his murderers. In that, I think he showed that there is more than one way of working to achieve what is right, that moral outrage can be expressed quietly and with consideration for others. It is easy to dash off an angry tweet or Facebook status. It relieves our feelings. But if we really want to do good, we might take a leaf from St Thomas’s book.

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The Joy of Wonder

Sandstone sculpture from northern France, XIV century,
William Randolph Hearst Collection (50.33.9)

There are some lines from the collect we use for Christmas Vigils that always send a shiver down my spine:

Your eternal Word came down from heaven in the silent watches of the night, and now your Church is filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. (referring to Wisdom 18. 14–15)

They take us away from the sentimentality of ‘Jingle Bells’ and “Santa’ hats and plunge us deep into the mystery of God. All very well for those who dwell in monasteries, you may think, but for most of us the warmth and humanity of a family Christmas is a mixture of sentimentality and church and a thousand and one other things. True, and there is nothing wrong and much that is very right in that; but not everyone has a family Christmas to enjoy or grumble about. The news this morning is filled with stories of those made suddenly homeless by the Indonesian tsunami or other catastrophes across the globe. Indeed, we do not have to stray far from our own front doors to find the homeless, the sick or the suffering, for whom Christmas is not at all the brilliant superabundant feast of Dickensian myth. When there is no room for sentimentality, we are thrown back on the mystery, on the truth of the Incarnation and the meaning of Christ’s birth for each and every one of us.

For me that mystery is expressed in the line about the Church being filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. Wonder is not fashionable. It has no street cred. It is the reverse of ‘cool’, yet wonder is one of the most generous and joyful of emotions. We are surprised with wonder at the unexpected or even the familiar seen or heard as for the first time. It is not dependent on our circumstances. I remember once being moved almost to tears by the luminous beauty of a raindrop slowly coursing down a window-pane. At the time, I was busy with many things, distracted and irritable, but my attention was suddenly held and a rainy day transformed by that glimpse of loveliness. Christmas Day is a little like that. At one level, it is a day like any other; at another, it is a day out of time, a day that allows us a glimpse of eternity and of God himself.

Today we are invited to wonder at the miracle of God made man, the mighty Word reduced to a baby’s wail. This we can celebrate no matter where we are or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Too much family or too little, feasting or forced to fast, our God is near to us. All glory, honour and praise be to Him for ever and ever!

And a very happy Christmas to all my readers!

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A Moment of Peace

Christmas Eve in most households is anything but peaceful. Even the most organized seem to be full of last-minute activity, from cooking to present-wrapping, to say nothing of the long treks homeward many a son or daughter and family will make in order to celebrate together with other family members. In the monastery there is no present-wrapping or travel to worry about, but the preparation of a complex liturgy which goes on throughout the Octave and a more than usually ample dinner for Christmas Day itself, can be demanding, especially when unexpected visitors turn up or those in distress telephone in search of comfort. How do any of us find peace in all this? The conventional wisdom, to go with the flow, is at best a half-truth. Peace is not to be identified with the absence of struggle or a kind of mental or moral opting-out, nor can we glibly assert that embracing reality, whatever that means in this context, is the answer.

There is only one way to find peace on Christmas Eve and that is to allow the Prince of Peace into our hearts and minds. It means consciously stopping, at least for a few moments, all our frantic activity and saying, ‘Lord, you see how busy I am. If I forget you, please don’t forget me!’ In that acknowledgement of our inability to slow down or halt the Christmas rush, we are being honest; and, instead of turning the Lord away for a time when we think we will be better able to receive him, we are inviting him into our chaotic present, admitting it is far from perfect, but wanting to be with him, and him with us, all the same.

To stop, even for a moment, is not easy, especially if there is no-one else to do whatever it is that we are doing. Most of us need to use our imagination more. Going from one room to another, clearing a table, climbing the stairs, washing-up or loading the dishwasher — all provide moments we can use to turn to the Lord. And if anyone feels self-conscious about doing so, a little lonely in their desire to keep their focus on the Lord when everyone else expects them to be full of a festive spirit that seems to have nothing much to do with the Incarnation, I hope they will find encouragement in this thought. Throughout the world there are monks, nuns and countless others praying the prayer they themselves would pray if they had time. The Communion of Saints is not an abstraction. It is part of the new order ushered in by Christmas, one of the precious gifts our Saviour gives to the world.

May God grant you and those you love a very happy Christmas.

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