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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Good Friday 2019

The cross at Notre Dame de Paris after the fire
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis } The cross stands while the world turns

Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.

At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.

Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why dost thou look so sore?

sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.

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As Holy Week Draws Near

Tonight, when we sing First Vespers of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins but my guess is that most Christians will already be thinking about Holy Week and many will be actively preparing their churches and choirs for all that is to come. It is a very human tendency to want to live either in the past or in the future and avoid the present altogether, but the truth is, the present is all we ever have. So, today, on the eve of Palm Sunday, I think we are invited to take stock of where we are now. Whatever our plans for Holy Week and Easter, the Lord has a way of subtly re-writing them. We may be faced with something unwelcome or simply unexpected, but in the midst of it all we must find peace. Today’s first Mass reading, from Ezekiel 37, sets the tone: the Lord will make an eternal covenant of peace with us; he will be our God; but we must do our part, too. We must allow ourselves to be cleansed of our sin and defilement.

We tend to think in terms of our seeking forgiveness, of our making amends, of our being determined to ‘avoid the occasions of sin’ as the old prayer has it. How rarely do we appreciate that being freed from sin is something we must consent to, that in every case God takes the initiative? As I wrote a few days ago, putting the emphasis on our own activity leads to unproductive feelings of guilt and failure. What we must cling to more than ever is the grace of God. We must believe that he wills our salvation, he wills our freedom; and he wills it now. Therefore, we must not let our gaze be so fixed on tomorrow that we fail to see what today offers. During Holy Week we shall mark hour by hour the journey of our Saviour to the Cross and Resurrection but today we are with him in Ephraim, a town bordering on the desert (cf John 11. 45-56). We are hidden with him, and we trust that God is powerfully at work. We do not see; we walk by faith — and that is the best preparation any of us can make as Holy Week draws near.

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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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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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On the Edge of the World

Living in rural Herefordshire after living in Oxfordshire is a little like living on the edge of the world. Everything is different. Instead of chalk downland we have the red soil and oak-covered sweeps of the Golden Valley, with the ‘blue remembered hills’ of Shropshire to the north and the grey Marcher castles to the south and west. Instead of the bustle of Oxford and its honey-coloured stone, we have the quieter, more sedate streets of Hereford. Even the diocese is different in character, Cardiff being less populous than Portsmouth and Welsh rather than English. At times, one can feel quite ‘out’ of things, a mere spectator, no longer in demand as a speaker or interviewee on TV or radio — what one old nun, now dead, called ‘holy asparagus’ — but I must admit, it has its charms. At the heart of what I’ve called living on the edge of the world is a glorious paradox: to be closer to what genuinely matters because more distant from what does not.

To be on the edge, at the margin, is to experience a tremendous freedom. It is to understand what drove the prophets and the first monks and nuns into the desert. By disengaging from much that the world considers valuable or important, one can enter into a much deeper engagement with God; and one necessarily carries with one the pain and suffering and hopes of humanity. It is thus not only a tremendous freedom, it is also a tremendous privilege, one that monks and nuns are able to live every day of their lives. Those who have to worry about their families and their jobs may not find it so easy to live with such intensity, at least not all the time, but Lent gives us all an opportunity to ‘go to the edge’ as it were, and experience the desert for ourselves.

As we begin thinking about our preparations for Lent, may I suggest that we do not start with what we are going to give up? That puts the emphasis on us and often leads to confusion, e.g. fasting is not dieting, however much we would like our abandonment of some particular food to do good to our waistline! No, I think we have to start with the marginality of the desert, the place where Christ struggled with the demons and where we must learn to alter our focus. Before we even begin to think about what we shall give up, therefore, let us pray for our eyes to be opened to what needs to be changed in our lives and ask God’s help to do what is necessary. Lent is God’s gift to us. Let us use it as he intends.

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From the Perspective of Eternity

Whenever the news is dire, as often seems the case at present, there is a great temptation to bury one’s head in the sand, muttering ‘This too will pass.’ Or we can remind ourselves that we remember very little of what happened on this day five years ago, unless it marked some great personal happiness or sorrow. The ability to forget can be a great mercy, but it is frequently a selective mercy. We forget; but do others? Burying our heads in the sand may be tempting, but can everyone do that?

Lent will soon be here and I shall be writing a few posts about how to prepare for it and, hopefully, allow it to transform us. An important element in that will be trying to hold in creative tension the everyday and the eternal. St Benedict urges us to ‘do now what may profit us for eternity’. In other words, we have to cultivate the ability to see that our ordinary, everyday actions have implications for hereafter. From the perspective of eternity, nothing is unimportant or irrelevant. Everything is charged with meaning. Put like that, we can see the necessity of prayer, scripture and the regular reception of the sacraments, of forgiving those who have hurt us and, even more important, seeking the forgiveness of those we ourselves have hurt. We may have forgotten, but the chances are that those we have wounded haven’t. May I suggest there is something there we need to think about and act on?

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