The Korean Church: a Lay Initiative

The feast of the Korean Martyrs is one of those liturgical celebrations that tends to make little impact on me. I don’t know many Koreans, and my knowledge of Korean history, especially Korean Church history, is sketchy; but there is one fact I do recall and about which I think we would all do well to reflect. The history of Christianity in Korea is largely the history of a lay initiative. We don’t know when the first Koreans became Christians, but it was probably in the seventeenth century. There were no priests that we know of. In the eighteenth century there are records of persecution, with an estimated ten thousand men, women and children executed for refusing to perform the usual sacrifices on the death of family members or otherwise failing to observe the usual customs.The first priest of whom we have definite note was, I believe, a Frenchman, who entered the country in 1836 and was beheaded three years later. The first Korean priest was Andrew Kim Taegǒn, who trained secretly in Macao, went back to Korea in 1845 and was martyred in 1846. As Pope St John Paul II remarked when he canonised the Korean Martyrs in 1984,

The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.

We are familiar with the story of the fidelity of lay Christians in many parts of the world — the Nagasaki Christians, for example — but I wonder how often we take to heart the lesson they provide. It is not merely their obvious love of the Lord, their courage and fidelity, that we applaud. There is something chastening (in a good sense) about the way in which they constitute the Church. At present, when many Catholics are expressing anger and disappointment at the way in which bishops and clergy have often failed to get to grips with the evil of abuse, the history of the Korean Church is a stark reminder of the role of the laity and the responsibility we all have for the Church’s growth in number and holiness. We do not abandon the Church because she is not all we should like her to be. We stay and work to ensure that she becomes what the Lord desires she should be — and that applies to all of us, whether we be bishops, priests, laity or religious. We all have a part to play, and though our roles differ, none can be regarded as ‘secondary’ or ‘unimportant’. The feast of the Korean Martyrs is a reminder to laypeople of the greatness of the lay vocation, a gentle warning to bishops and clergy that the power of ruling is not the only one to be valued in the Church, and an encouragement to us all that grace will be given in time of need. Thank God for that.


An Inspiration for Older People and Others

Today is the feast of St Theodore of Tarsus who is credited with having set up the parish system we are familiar with in England and whose reputation both as a scholar and administrator persists to this day. What is less widely known is that he is a good example of European Man: born in Greece, he became a monk in Italy and did his greatest work in England. What is even less widely known is that he was 65 when he was ordained, just before becoming archbishop of Canterbury. Think of that — at a time when average life expectancy was probably somewhere in the forties, even for the most affluent, Theodore was not yet ready for the task that lay before him. He needed more experience, more testing; and what a test it must have been, to set off in his sixties for a country he didn’t know and to be given the task of bringing order and discipline to its Church!

The so-called Penitential of Theodore is not by him, although it contains a number of the judgements that he issued. Of particular interest to many historians today is section 22, ‘On the rites performable by women and their ministry in the Church’. This strikes a very contemporary note but, sadly, I haven’t the actual text to hand and am reluctant to quote from memory (if I remember correctly, the judgement says that women may prepare the altar and gifts and do whatever male deacons do but I forget the exact wording or what occasioned the judgement: context is always important, and it is likely, though not certain, that what we have in the Penitential are the responses of Theodore to questions put to him by young clerics studying in the Canterbury School). However, the fact that Theodore’s decisions were thought worth recording and referring to in later generations is significant. He was what we might call a creative administrator, not just one who stuck rigidly to someone else’s rule-book.

I think St Theodore is a great encouragement to those who are growing older, to those who are monks or clergy, and to those who have come to Britain from other countries to live and work. He is at once both highly traditional — the monk-bishop who becomes a saint — and a man who breaks the mould by virtue of his age and background. Something to ponder there, I suggest.


To Bless or Not to Bless

I see Pope Francis has refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing twice recently: to the Italian Red Cross and to a Youth Meeting in Sicily*. The reasons he gave for not doing so were that in both cases the audience was made up of many who were not Catholics — Christians of other denominations, followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists — and he did not wish to give offence. I presume that the pope was being very exact about the liturgical significance of blessing, understood as a prayer or rite performed in the name of the Church and by a duly qualified minister by which persons or things are set apart or sanctified to the service of God or God’s favour is invoked upon them. Not being Italian, I don’t know whether papal blessings are a source of outrage to those who are not Catholic. Having encountered a little hostility to the habit on visits to Rome, I suspect that the question arouses more emotion in Italy than it would here. Perhaps the pope judged the situation accurately. I don’t know, but it has prompted me to think more about blessing in general.

Most readers will be familiar with the many instances of blessing in the Old Testament while some will know and love the beautiful blessings used in contemporary Judaism. In addition to liturgical blessings, the Church has always allowed for a wider use of blessing formulae. As praise and thanksgiving many of us use various forms of blessing throughout the day — before and after meals, for example. St Benedict was very keen on blessing as part of the ritual courtesy of the cloister and as the necessary prelude to entering upon any task or service. For him, it was an invocation of God’s help, as in kitchen service, or recognition of  the grace of God in the other person, as in the greeting of a guest or fellow community member, as well as a means of giving glory to God. This kind of blessing is not reserved to the clergy, and perhaps we should all be more courageous about its use.

I have mentioned before that over the years I have become less reserved about expressing my faith in public. You are not likely to see me carrying a banner or flopping to my knees in a public place, but you may well see me using the ritual gestures as I pray the Office in a quiet corner of the hospital or hear me responding to someone with ‘May God bless you!’ I have not yet encountered any hostility for doing so, though I know that the expression of Christian belief or practice in the workplace is now very problematic in Britain. I find that sad. It is a measure of how far we have strayed from even a residual understanding of Christianity. I would agree that aggressive attempts to proselytise are unacceptable, but I do not see why wishing well to another (blessing) should be seen as an attack on another’s freedom or personal integrity. I’d say it isn’t blessing that hurts another but cursing, and the world is full of that.

So, this Sunday morning, whatever you are doing, please spare a thought for the role of blessing in your life. A blessing doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken aloud nor accompanied with any particular gesture. It is enough that mind and heart should agree to bless, to praise, and to give thanks; and we could all do with more of that, couldn’t we?

I now have more information about what happened in Palermo and wish to correct the misleading impression given by my words, viz. that ‘the pope refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing’. Although the pope did not give a blessing in Trinitarian form (as he would have done had he used the liturgical format) he did indeed bless all the young people present, using the name of God and adapting his words to the occasion. I am sorry that some have used this as an opportunity to attack the pope. In any case, my post is about our blessing of others, not the pope’s!


Re-Imagining the Church: the Triumph of the Cross 2018

For some, today will be coloured chiefly by the liturgy as we celebrate the Triumph or Exaltation of the Cross. For others, there will be a remembrance of the death of Dante, surely among the greatest of all poets and Christian thinkers. For those who dwell in monasteries, especially those who serve as cook, there will be some more worldly concerns as we begin the winter fast. The link between all three is membership of the Church. The liturgy for this day reminds us very firmly of the central mystery of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Dante’s vast, imaginative sweep gives expression to centuries of meditation on that same mystery, while the monastic cook ensures that we feel in our flesh something of what that mystery demands. All well and good, but for many more, if they think about the Church at all, it will be to ask what is being done about the abuse scandals in the absence of any coherent answer from the pope and bishops beyond an exhortation to prayer and penance and the promise of a synod of bishops some months hence. As some have pointed out, asking the laity to do penance for what is largely a sin of clergy and religious strikes something of a false note. Of course we recognize that we are all involved, that our membership of the Church means we have a collective responsibility, but I do not think it works out in quite the way that those outside the Church assume. If we spend too much time on what we’d like the Church to be, we shall be in danger of missing or misunderstanding what she actually is. We need to do a little re-imagining, and I think today’s feast is an encouragement to do so.

Today’s gospel ends with the words

God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved. (John 3.17)

Have we lost sight of that in our preoccupation with how we would like the Church to be? So many of the disputes within the Catholic Church tend to be an attempt to refashion the Church according to our own notions. We would like the Church to be ‘traditional’. The problem with that is that we tend to interpret the word according to our own ideas, locating the ‘perfect’ Church in a particular time and form, ignoring all the rest. Alternatively, we would like the Church to be ‘liberal’. The problem with that is that our ideas may stray quite far from the teaching of the Church, leading us into heresy of one kind or another. We forget what today’s feast and today’s gospel insist upon: the Church exists to bring us all to salvation. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back, as it were, from our own experience of the Church and ask how the Church’s mission might best be accomplished in the world in which we live and why she is as she is. Her structures will not change overnight; the Truth she teaches will not change, although the way in which she presents it may (just think how much we have learned about the universe since Dante wrote of ‘the Love that moves the sun and lesser stars’!). Above all, human nature remains essentially the same. Our re-imagining of the Church must take account of all these. Perhaps what we most need at this time is humility and a willingness to let go of our own ideas. The problems we confront, from environmental pollution to Artificial Intelligence and its as yet undreamed-of ramifications, will stretch us, no doubt about that. But in the midst of it all, at the very centre of whatever worlds there are, stands the Cross, unmoving. That gives us hope. It also provides the impetus to question, to reflect, to pray.


Sitting on a Fence or Jumping on a Band-waggon?

The events of the last few days have shaken many ordinary Catholics — not in our faith, but in our perception of the Church’s leadership and its ability to deal with the apparently never-ending revelations of abuse, corruption and cover-ups. Archbishop Viganò’s letter is merely the latest but potentially most damning accusation of all. That fact makes me want to repeat something I have said many times already: unless or until we know the full facts, we should be wary of adding further fuel to the fire by rash accusations or counter-accusations of our own. Sitting on a fence may not seem very brave — it is certainly uncomfortable — but it is better than jumping on a band-waggon. Just think for a moment. To make a false accusation against another is calumny and defamation of character. It is a serious matter. At the moment both Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò are having very grave allegations made against them. Most of us are not in a position to judge. We may have our suspicions, but suspicions are not evidence and usually reflect our own previous opinions about various matters. Unfortunately, this has led to some very ugly in-fighting made public online and soon, no doubt, in the press. I daresay that is exactly what the devil wants. Destroying the unity of the Church, setting us against one another, creating an atmosphere of chaos and toxic distrust, is not the work of the Holy Spirit! Those using the opportunity this discord brings to advance an agenda of their own should ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering those who have suffered or could be exposed, now or in the future, to abuse — which is, after all, where we began and is the terrible sin the Church must address.

I was thinking about this in the context of St Monica’s feast today. She is conventionally portrayed as ‘merely’ the mother of a much greater figure, St Augustine of Hippo, and as such often given rather short shrift. She had an impossible husband and a drink problem, and the years of her widowhood were far from easy. It all sounds rather dreary, so no wonder we look at the son and tend to forget the mother. But there is something about St Monica that I think we do well to remember: she was a woman of extraordinary persistence in prayer. Would Augustine have become a saint without her? Who can say, but surely those ceaseless prayers, that persevering faith, count for something. St Monica encourages us ordinary Catholics to go on praying, believing, hoping and, above all, trying to maintain the bond of charity which unites the Church. The unholy glee with which some Catholics have greeted the latest revelations is, indeed, unholy and destructive. May we never be party to it. May we not fail those whose wounds the whole Church now knows about and must try to heal.


Of Abbots, Obedientiaries and Children in the Rule of St Benedict – part 2

An obedientiary is someone who has received a specific obedience or task to perform in the monastery. Among those mentioned by St Benedict are the

  • prior (effectively the abbot’s deputy or second in command)
  • novice master
  • cellarer (administrator or business manager of the monastery)
  • guestmaster
  • infirmarian (who has care of the sick)
  • doorkeeper

In a small community one person may hold a number of obediences, e.g the prior may also be infirmarian, monastery cook, librarian, habit-maker and what you will. In a larger community, the cellarer, guestmaster and infirmarian will usually have assistants, while some communities also employ lay people to help with various functions. Today, however, I want to look only at those obedientiaries who have dealings with children in the monastery and examine what the Rule says about them.

Children in the monastery
Of course, the first thing to note is that Benedict takes for granted the presence of children in the monastery. He frequently uses the word infans, meaning young person, for those up to fifteen years of age, which roughly corresponds to the time when a Roman youth assumed the toga virilis, and puer or puer parvus, boy, for those younger than that. More rarely he uses the term adolescens, adolescent, or simply iuvens, youth.

In many instances, Benedict may be referring to child oblates, dedicated to the Lord by their parents at an early age, like the young St Bede (cf RB 59), or young people sent to the monastery to get some education. Benedict does not mention schools but from very early times we find evidence of small alumnates. We do know that both monks and nuns have cared for children in their communities for many centuries; and I think ‘care’ is the operative word. For example, Benedict obviously understood that the young appetite is a fierce and demanding beast. In his little chapter on the old and young, he stipulates that the rigour of the Rule as regards food is by no means to apply to them (RB 37. 2). On the contrary, they are to be shown loving consideration, pia consideratio, and allowed to eat before the regular hours (RB 37. 3), although he doesn’t think the very young, pueres, will necessarily need as much as their elders (RB 39.10).  He is aware that high spirits can sometimes lead to unruliness, so he charges the whole community with responsibility for ensuring that ‘boys up to fifteen years of age are to be carefully watched over by everyone, but with entire moderation and judiciousness’ (RB 70. 4). He goes on to say that anyone who treats the boys with immoderate severity is to undergo the punishment of the Rule (RB 70. 7), quoting Tobit 4.16, ‘Do not do to another what you do not want done to yourself,’ one of his favourite texts. A discordant note may be sounded by Benedict’s acceptance of corporal punishment, for adults as well as children(cf RB 30), but I daresay many of those reading this post will have experienced a wallop or two in their time. I can certainly recall being boxed on the ears for a false quantity in Latin — though not by a Benedictine!

On the whole, however, I think it is fair to say that the Rule is ahead of its time in making explicit provision for children and young people, and that the guidelines Benedict gives the community as a whole, though comparatively few, are based on personal observation and experience. It is a characteristic of the Rule that care and consideration are to mark everyone’s conduct, especially towards the most vulnerable, among whom Benedict expressly includes the young.

Obedientiaries and children
Given what I have just written, it may seem strange that Benedict does not explicitly name an obedientiary with responsibility for children. It may be, of course, that the novice master had care of them, at least the child oblates. RB 58, concerning the way in which brethren are to be received, does not give us any clues, unless we except Benedict’s admonition that the novice master is to watch over those in his charge ‘with the utmost care’ (RB 58. 6). With the cellarer, we are on slightly surer ground. The list of qualities he is required to have makes daunting reading, but there are two that are particularly striking. He is to be a God-fearing man, ‘like a father to the whole community’ (RB 31. 2), not allowing  anything to be neglected (RB 31. 11); and he is specifically told that he must take meticulous care of children, knowing that he will have to render account for them on Judgement Day (RB31. 9). Children are listed immediately after the sick, which shows how important Benedict regarded their proper treatment and how anxious he was that someone with a great deal of power in the monastery should, like the abbot, be aware of the consequences of any failure.

How far were children integrated into the life and work of the community, and how far were they kept apart? That is difficult to say. Benedict occasionally refers to children and youths who are clearly regarded as community members. For example, he says boys and adolescents are to keep to their entrance order at both table and in choir (Rb 63. 18) and are to have supervision and discipline until they come to the age of discretion (RB 63. 19), which suggests that they eat with the rest of the community and pray with them, too. We find young people assigned to specific tasks, e.g. the doorkeeper, who is singled out as being somebody old and wise, is to have someone younger to help him, but it is not clear whether the reference is to a young monk or an oblate (RB 66.5). The same is probably true of all the various assistants named in the Rule, although we do know that the novices occupied a separate part of the monastery. The degree of segregation probably varied from monastery to monastery, but the obedientiaries are constantly being warned that their conduct must be irreproachable; and where Benedict explicitly mentions children and young people, it is always to urge moderation and care.

A tentative conclusion
The Rule of St Benedict is quite short —it can be read through in an hour — but its language may be difficult for some because it reflects the age in which it was written, the sixth century. Benedict’s preoccupation with Trinitarian orthodoxy and his (for the time) quite novel lack of concern for social status may pass us by unless we are tuned into them, but there is much more that will be found arresting and worth pondering, whether we live in a monastery or not. I think no one who reads the text can come away from it thinking it is in any way ‘responsible’ for the kind of dreadful abuse we have read about at Ampleforth and Downside. The responsibility lies rather with a failure to follow the Rule. For that, there is both an individual responsibility, the personal failure of any one of us to live up to its precepts; and possibly also a collective or institutional failure in the way in which the Rule is interpreted in the Constitutions of the individual monastery, the Declarations of the Congregation to which the monastery may belong or even the directives of the Vatican if they contradict the provisions made by St Benedict. Every Benedictine house has its own ‘feel’, its own ‘take’ on the Rule. At its best, that is an enormous strength; at its worst, it can be misused by individuals to forward aims of their own, and that can be a great weakness.

The Constitutions with which I myself am most familiar are those of the monastery here at Howton Grove, and I do not think that they contain anything contrary to the Rule. We do not belong to a Congregation, so no Declarations to worry about, and though the potential effect of Cor Orans disturbs me greatly, there is absolutely no reason for any community member to argue that the Rule itself has been distorted and is the ’cause’ of any wrongdoing she may be guilty of. I think — I hope— anyone visiting our house will be struck by its authentically Benedictine character, and by its joyfulness. If we fail to live up to the demands of the Rule, if we sin, it is our own responsibility and no one else’s.


The Sadness of the Church

Anyone who has read the IICSA report on Ampleforth and Downside (which you can obtain here, or the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report into sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses in the State of Pennsylvania (which you can obtain here, will have been left feeling sad and probably angry as well. It is appalling that children and young people should have been treated so abominably while the depraved behaviour of some clerics is mind-numbing. No one ‘gets over’ such abuse, no matter how admirably they cope, or seem to cope, in later life. Official apologies or promises to learn lessons sound increasingly hollow, the clerical equivalent of corporate-speak.

I think we can say the whole Church is sad because of the failure of many bishops and priests to realise how the laity and good, decent clergy and religious feel about the incessant revelations of corrupt and depraved behaviour among their pastors. It is not ‘just’ that young people have been abused; not ‘just’ that there have been cover-ups; not ‘just’ the hypocrisy of promising celibate chastity then living a dissolute life; it is the enormity of the sin and, time and time again, the arrogant indifference of the response that has hurt and led to yet more suffering, especially among the poor. A few years ago I wrote about nuns in the Boston diocese who literally lost the roof over their heads because the diocese needed to pay out large sums in compensation. There was inevitably a knock-on effect on schools and hospitals for the poor. I daresay we may see more of the same in the future, with the most vulnerable suffering the most. But, and it is an important but, it is not my purpose to add to the chorus of lamentation and anger, although I must acknowledge the dreadful wrong done. We need to address the question of what to do now. What do those of us who are ordinary Catholics — priests, religious, lay — do in the light of these scandals?

Calls for collective repentance and conversion of heart only go so far and are sometimes a substitute for facing up to the reality of the situation. Of course we must pray, and pray hard, but we must also act. Our bishops cannot deny that the Church is in crisis, at a turning-point. It is no good dredging up statistics to prove that abuse is much more common in society as a whole than in the Church. We know that, but we expect better of those who are Christians. It is no good arguing, as I have heard many argue when attending Safeguarding training days, that the ‘whole abuse thing’ is an attack on the Catholic Church. It isn’t, unless one acknowledges that it is an attack from within. We must be honest and admit that there is a huge problem, one we must tackle at the individual level if we are to succeed in overcoming it at the ecclesial level. So, no excuses for any of us, no attempts to play down the wickedness of what has happened in the past or to walk a double-path in the future; but, having said that, I do think there are grounds for hope.

I think of the priests I know who have been insulted and even attacked because many of the public — including Catholics — are incapable of distinguishing between the innocent and the guilty. Their fidelity in the face of scorn and derision gives me hope. I think of religious who have braved disbelief and opprobrium because they would not collude with evil. They give me hope. I think, too, of the attempts of many American Catholics to ensure that the laity are properly included in any commissions of enquiry, despite Cardinal Wuerl’s apparent inability to recognize that they are as much a part of the Church as the bishops. Their concern for the Church, their willingness to go on despite the negative response they receive, also gives me hope. The sheer decency of so many Catholics who quietly persevere in trying to live good, generous lives gives me hope. Some have called for changes in Church discipline or teaching to allow clerical marriage more generally or admit women to the priesthood. They make me suspect another agenda at work. It may sound simplistic or old-fashioned to some, but if we have promised celibate chastity, that’s it — no infringements, no ‘accommodations’; and where there have been lapses, no cover-ups or attempts to minimize the harm done.

This Sunday many a homily will be preached on the Bread of Life. I daresay some would prefer to hear from the pulpit some straight talking about abuse and the Church’s response, but I think the gospel homilies have an important point to make. We are not members of the Church because of the pope, the bishops or the clergy. We are members of the Church because we have been called by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is in him that we place our trust. Teilhard de Chardin once described the Church as being like a mist surrounding a lamp, both concealing and revealing the light. To get to the light (Christ) we have to go through the Church. At the moment the way may seem very dark, but it is the Light that draws us and the Bread of Life that sustains us as we go. May we never forget that.


Enjoying Sunday

One of the things I think Catholics do particularly well is to enjoy their religion. We do not put on a gloomy and sanctimonious face when we go to church, nor do we spend overmuch time listening to sermons. We have our fasts, but we like our feasts, too. The ‘twenty minute Mass’ beloved of race-goers of old probably does not exist any more, but we are very good at adapting the liturgy to suit our needs: slow, and with many a prayerful pause, at the conventual Mass; rather brisker at the parish 8.30 a.m. Mass over, off we go, without any silly scrupulosity, to enjoy the rest of the day, doing whatever we want, or nothing at all, as our fancy takes us. Is there anything wrong with that? I think not. Far too often Christianity is presented as a religion of negatives, one that prevents us doing what we want, or makes us feel guilty if we do. Granted, Christianity does urge us to be truthful, honest, kind, compassionate, etc, etc, but these are good things that any sane person would want to be, and prayer, though frequently derided by those with no experience of it, does open us up to the wonder and beauty of God. Sunday is our sabbath, our day of rest, our joy, our delight: the first day of the week that sets the tone for the rest. Here in the monastery we spend more time in prayer and reading than is possible on other days, but we also eat a better dinner and have a strict rule that no one is to correct (i.e. argue with/scold/berate) another for anything. That means that there are usually no arguments, no clashes, and everyone is free to be herself, as God intends her to be, and is grateful for the gifts that the day brings. Is there something here for everyone, monastic or not?


A Bad Day for Religion?

A couple of reports caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines this morning. One suggested that societies become wealthier as they lose their religion, the other that a majority of people in this country think that religion is the main cause of wars.* Are we back to the Durkheim versus Weber debate, I wondered, as I paused to think what might have led to these conclusions. The idea that we may become materially richer once we drop the restraints of religion strikes me as being self-evident. Most of the religions I can think of, not just Judaism or Christianity, stress honesty, charity towards others and similar checks on the untrammelled pursuit of material gain. No morality works better than the Protestant Work Ethic when it comes to amassing money, surely? So, if you want to be rich, you had better aim at being fundamentally selfish and ditch your religion — but don’t be surprised if you aren’t necessarily happy. I imagine it is possible to be both rich and happy but it cannot be assumed, any more than being poor and happy can. There seems to be something in us as human beings that makes us want to be loved, and to be loved there generally has to be something that others find loveable. A selfish focus on gain for oneself isn’t usually that.

Religion as the cause of war or volence is trickier. Are we talking about religion or the public perception of religion? The rise of Islamist terrorism has tended to make us all nervous of the kind of religious fundamentalism that sees inflicting death on others as a good act. Those of a more historical bent like to remember the religious persecutions of earlier times, while those who have fallen foul of certain kinds of contemporary Christian fundamentalism are quick to point out that there is still much hatred being heaped upon those who do not subscribe to its tenets or conform to its expectations. (And, lest anyone be in any doubt, the fundamentalism I speak of can be found in the Catholic Church as well as in other denominations.) I have a  suspicion that blaming religion for wars and violence may be more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a carefully considered argument. It is socially acceptable to say so, but what is socially acceptable isn’t necessarily true.

That leads me back to my original question: is this a bad day for religion? I’d say it is a bad day for bad religion, certainly. But it would be silly to stop there. It is an opportunity for those of us who claim to be religious to examine how we actually live our religion and resolve to do better. Chesterton once observed that it wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had never been tried at all. That is an uncomfortable reminder that the way in which those of us who are Christians try to live the gospel really matters. We may never be rich in this world’s goods (see above) but to be rich towards God and his children, that is our aim. And the shocking truth is that if we who are Christians really were all that we are called to be, no one would ever think of blaming religion for the wars and violence that scar the face of the earth, for they wouldn’t exist; nor would anyone be calculating how much material wealth might flow from our dropping religion because the world would be a very different place, where the inequalities of the present order would be, quite literally, unthinkable. Utopian? Of course, but anyone who has read Utopia will know what More was criticizing and why. Couldn’t we make this into a good day for religion by our response?

*The BBC reported the first, Theos the second, but I don’t have the links to hand.


St Benedict and Europe (Again)

Readers of this blog may think I have written more than enough about St Benedict and Europe already. I have had more than one go at expressing my thoughts about Brexit, and as I try very hard to keep iBenedictines free from party politics, it is difficult to say more without inviting the kind of one-dimensional comment that is the moderator’s nightmare. However, the events of the last few days have concentrated minds wonderfully. The spectacle of the government disintegrating before our eyes, the fact that Brexit negotiations are still stuck at a rudimentary stage, and the grave doubts many have about the wisdom of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the way in which it was presented to the public at the time of the EU referendum combine to make me think that there is still something to be said.

When Paul VI proclaimed St Benedict patron of Europe (a title he now enjoys with several others) he was acknowledging the unique role of the Benedictines in shaping the Christian culture of the West:

Messenger of peace, moulder of union, magister of civilization, and above all herald of the religion of Christ and founder of monastic life in the West: these are the proper titles of exaltation given to St Benedict, Abbot. At the fall of the crumbling Roman Empire, while some regions of Europe seemed to have fallen into darkness and others remained as yet devoid of civilization and spiritual values, he it was who, by constant and assiduous effort, brought to birth the dawn of a new era. It was principally he and his sons, who with the cross, the book and the plough, carried Christian progress to scattered peoples from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the plains of Poland (Cf. AAS 39 (1947), p. 453). With the cross; that is, with the law of Christ, he lent consistency and growth to the ordering of public and private life. To this end, it should be remembered that he taught humanity the primacy of divine worship through the ‘opus Dei’, i.e. through liturgical and ritual prayer. Thus it was that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture felt they constituted the one people of God; a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages.

He went on to draw an analogy with the formation and purpose of what we now know as the EU. Half a century later, the optimism looks a little naive. The bright dream of the future is no more — and it isn’t ‘Brussels red tape’ that has destroyed it but horrors like Srebrenica and the resurgence of a populism that preys on the weak and rejects the stranger. The antidote many have offered is a return to the past, to a time that never was save in our imagination, and the selective recreation of a Europe that has closed its eyes to what lies beyond its borders. (The Europe I speak of includes Britain.) Perhaps it is time for a reality check, using the same Rule of St Benedict that Paul VI saw as so creative.

First and foremost, the Rule of St Benedict is about seeking God and living in a manner pleasing to him. There are no half-measures, no indulgences, no small accommodations we can make to suit our whims and fancies. The Rule catches us at every turn and leads us back to the Gospel, to living with the eyes of God always upon us, our ears always alert for his voice. The human society regulated by St Benedict, the monastic community, has what we would call ‘democratic elements’, but it is not a democracy as we understand it today. It is inclusive by its very nature, but its inclusivity is far removed from what is usually meant by that term nowadays. It is uncompromising in its insistence on virtue, orthodoxy, hard work and plain living. In other words, it is a demanding Rule — not harsh, in the way that Celtic monasticism was harsh; not burdensome, in the way that many a later rule has been; but a Rule that gets to the heart of things and asks our all. It has been an important instrument for the creation of a Christian culture without which I dare to say Europe (again including Britain) has no future. Its influence goes very deep — so deep, in fact, that we are often unaware of the Christian origin of much that we take for granted.

It isn’t fashionable to assert that Europe is Christian or it is nothing. We would much rather talk about multicultural richness and diversity. As I understand it, multiculturalism means that every culture must be accorded equal value. To suggest otherwise is to be narrow-minded, bigoted or worse. Increasingly, I think the multicultural experiment in Europe has failed, not because we do not value the gifts that other cultures bring but because it has led to lazy thinking and acting. Government attempts to define ‘British values’ have been doomed to failure because they have no real centre, nothing to hold them together. It would be more profitable, perhaps, to think about Benedict’s teaching on hospitality. RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, is welcoming, but it is the welcome of people who have confidence both in what they offer and what they receive. Do we have such confidence, or are we desperately trying to find it? Are we simply reluctant to welcome others, afraid of them, or do we we lack a sense of ‘home’? It is worth thinking about that for a moment.

To welcome others to one’s home, one must first have a home, which means a sense of identity, a uniqueness we can share but not forego. Our home doesn’t need to be a fortress, but it does need to be somewhere we can relax, feel at ease, know our place. For me as an Englishwoman, a Catholic and a Benedictine, that sense of home is undoubtedly linked to my country, my Church and my sense of Europe as the natural expression of my cultural identity. I hope that doesn’t make me unappreciative or fearful of what lies outside or beyond. Without roots, the tree cannot flourish. I know I cannot, and what is true of the individual is also true of Europe. There are indeed many things of which Christian Europe should repent; many things that, even today, we do not see clearly enough to know whether they are as they should be or not; but if we give up on the ‘Christian’, what is left? Only a soulless concentration on wealth, which forces the weakest under, and a growing inequality untempered by conscience or ideas of altruism. Surely we can do better than that?

St Benedict has many quotable sentences in his Rule, and to those of us who know the text by heart, they tend to come unbidden at various moments of the day. One that often comes to mind is RB 4.74, Et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare, Never to despair of God’s mercy. Whatever the difficulties we face, however great the chaos that threatens us, there is not merely the hope but the fact of God’s mercy. It may not come to us in the way we are expecting, but come it most certainly will. We must be ready to receive it.