Time for Another Little Rant?

Is the majority always right? I ask because a friend recently commented that they feel their freedom of thought and expression is being whittled away — here and now, in the U.K., traditionally the home of phlegmatic tolerance. When I questioned whether their thoughts could be determined by others, I was given short shrift. When society creates a climate of opinion regarded as acceptable or right, it is difficult not to be influenced by it. A totalitarian regime such as existed in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany can survive only insofar as it maintains a hold on people’s thinking. The same has often been alleged of Catholicism. At present, said my friend, public broadcasts, online news sites and social media were all tending in one direction on such varied topics as gender identity, equality, and climate change; and it was claimed that the majority of the population supported such views. Therefore, no form of dissent was to be expressed without running the risk of legal challenges and we, as a monastery of nuns, should beware lest we fall foul of the kind of legislation that would inevitably come to pass.

I think my friend may have been on to something. We have had a few vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, and although I have tried to explain the Church’s position as kindly and clearly as I can, some have responded badly and angrily, even threatening to take legal action against us. Thankfully, none has — yet. The Church’s defence of the unborn and her opposition to euthanasia are well-known, but her freedom to act in support of her beliefs is increasingly questioned and sometimes circumscribed by, among others, student unions and pressure groups. How long will it be before there is yet another challenge to her teaching on priestly ordination or marriage? Whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching or not (and let’s be honest, a lot of Catholics themselves dissent from various elements), there are centuries of prayer and reflection as well as lived experience behind what is taught. In other words, Catholics have as much right to their views as anyone else. What we believe has been thought about just as carefully as the beliefs of those who believe otherwise.

Of course, a difficulty comes when people argue that the Church is imposing her views on others. Often the argument can be turned on its head, that others are imposing their views on the Church, but not always. That is where my opening question becomes urgent. Is the majority always right? How do we differentiate between opinions and attitudes that may be fashionable but have no substance to them, and those that are genuinely of the Holy Spirit, a challenge to the Church that we must address? We talk of the Gamaliel principle, but even in my lifetime the intellectual and moral landscape of Britain has changed utterly. In my family, for example, my parents’ generation, by and large, did not divorce and spoke about family members who did in embarrassed tones; among my own generation, it has become almost commonplace, as has the practice of not marrying at all.

Readers of this post will have their own views and I invite you to share them, but please remember, no ad hominem attacks, and no rants — even if, in that last particular, I don’t necessarily follow my own rule.

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Recognizing a Prophet

Prophets do not make the easiest of companions. They tend to say and do things that make us uncomfortable and can sometimes be downright alarming. They see what we don’t. Unfortunately, those who claim to be prophets are often no such thing; but we can be taken in for a while because, deep down, we want to be reassured we have a guide, a way of accessing that which is beyond us with a certainty that removes the possibility of risk and failure. We talk about applying the Gamaliel principle but in practice rarely do. If the prophet speaks attractively or acts in a way that we approve, our judgement goes out of the window and we hail the saviour of the hour.

I exaggerate, of course, but there is an element of truth in that first paragraph. Whenever a cause becomes fashionable, our celebrity culture requires individuals to latch onto it and prove their wokeness by dragging the subject into every speech they make, every interview they give, every tweet they inflict on an adoring public. The original prophetic vision becomes distorted or is forgotten. Who now remembers how The Silent Spring changed the way many of us think about the world in which we live and our responsibility for what happens here?

It is the same with Christianity. In the Catholic Church, for example, there are currently a number of battles raging, with the champions being hailed as prophets by those dazzled by what they see. But what do they see? In some cases, I suspect it is a cracked reflection of their (our) own prejudices and preferences, given legitimacy by being associated with someone we regard as a prophet. Instead of taking responsibility ourselves, we prefer to rely on another’s vision and articulation of something we think important or necessary. It is a kind of vicarious faith that has little substance to it.

Today’s gospel (Mark 6. 1–6) confronts us with the question of how we recognize a genuine prophet. What is necessary in us, rather than in the prophet him/herself? From Jesus’ words we gather that a genuine prophet can only be recognized if we ourselves have a living faith — we cannot have what I called a vicarious faith. No one can believe for us. Maybe that is why recognizing a real prophet is so difficult. It is not just what they say and do that matters but what we say and do. To attain the clarity of vision we need, we have to be living the life of faith in all its fullness. Perhaps, instead of looking for prophets and guides outside, we should turn our gaze more inwards and consider what we find there. Only in that way can we hope to recognize the true prophets of our own day and respond to their message when it comes. As St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, we must always be on the alert for God’s word and none of us knows in advance how it will come to us today or any day.

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World Cancer Day 2020

To be honest, I’d rather be writing about St Gilbert of Sempringham whose feast-day this is, but I spend so much time responding to people who write to the monastery about cancer, their fears, their experience, and so on, that World Cancer Day seems a more necessary subject.

The theme for this year’s day is ‘I can and I will’, a brisk and bracing one. Tell that to someone vomiting after chemotherapy or sore and bleeding after weeks of radiotherapy and I wager you’ll get a weak smile at best. Good advice is equally hard to take, well-meant though it is. I confess to my shame that I tend to respond with a howl of rage whenever exhorted to fight, told that I can beat this thing or am recommended the superfood of the moment. The truth is, cancer is not very pleasant, nor is its treatment, and only those going through it really understand. It is horrible for those who look after the person who has cancer; it is horrible for those who love them. I myself have managed six years with stage 4 of a rare and aggressive form of cancer, thanks to God’s grace and the skill and determination of those involved in my treatment and care, but I am quite realistic about the outcome. As a friend cheerfully remarked online, ‘There is no stage 5. After stage 4, you die.’

So, all those encouraging reports about improved survival rates, new treatments and so on which we in the West take for granted, are only half the truth. They don’t apply to everyone, and in the developing world, where oncologists are few and treatment possibilities limited, they don’t apply at all.

Today we are encouraged to raise money for research in the hope that we can reduce the incidence of cancer and perhaps find cures for some of the commonest forms. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the first search about World Cancer Day 2020 that I performed with the DuckDuckGo search engine produced a series of results beginning with ‘Cancer Market’, subdivided into UK Cancer Market, US Cancer Market and Canada Cancer Market. There was nothing about the spiritual side of cancer care and precious little about the daily hurdles most cancer patients have to surmount.

It isn’t popular to say so, but I think the spiritual side of cancer care is as important as the more obvious, physical side. Having cancer is a lonely business. There are long hours of questioning and self-doubt, times of infinite weariness, periods when one does not want to admit how much something hurts, when one just wants it all to stop. It is then, of course, that one is brought back to reality by someone else’s need or one is given the grace to laugh at oneself.

The Church offers an abundance of set prayers and blessings for the sick, but nearly all of them seem to expect the sick person to recover. I find it difficult to say ‘Amen’ to such. Would it not be more honest simply to ask the Lord to do what we already know he is doing, accompany the sick person until death? And don’t forget the carers! They have the harder job in many ways. Often they do not get the attention and support they need while the cancer sufferer is alive, and after the death of the patient are left dangling, as it were, with scant interest in them or the weariness and distress they have experienced. Being exhorted to have more faith is entirely wrong, in my view.

Faith does not take away all doubt nor does it remove all fear, but for the cancer sufferer it enables us to go on — not gloriously perhaps, but at least we go on. I used to hope I might limp into eternity. These days I suspect I’m more likely to waddle there. I don’t mind. It doesn’t depend on me, and I am content. ‘I can and I will?’ No. He can, and He will.

Personal Note
The treatment I was having with Trabectedin has now ceased because it is no longer working. There aren’t many options for metastatic leiomyosarcoma but the sarcoma team at the Churchill are exploring whatever might be available. Please don’t send sympathy — it is not my style and makes me feel awkward. Prayer is what matters, and especially for those who are younger than I am and face amputations, etc. and for the carers for whom it can be so hard. Thank you.

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Contentment

To be content without becoming complacent is not easy; harder still to be content with ‘the meanest and worst of everything’ — including, it must be said, others’ treatment of us — as St Benedict writes in the sixth step of humility which we read today (RB 7.49–50). It gets worse. He goes on to say that, in respect of any task laid upon us, we must regard ourselves as ‘bad and worthless workers,’ which is contrary to everything we are taught to believe about our own self-worth and value as human beings. If Jesus had not said something similar in the gospel (Luke 17.10), we might be tempted to dismiss what Benedict says as the meanderings of a mad monk with a ‘down’ on humanity. In fact, it is precisely because Benedict has such a high vision of what we are capable of that he writes as he does. It is the innerliness of the monastic life, if I may coin such a word, that provides the clue. The monk or nun must contain within him/herself the source of their joy.

Today we mark the anniversary of the dedication of our monastery chapel. It is very small, rather mean-looking to an outsider, but it is the most important room in the house and, as such, the locus of the most intense moments of our lives as individuals and as a community. It is where we take the requests for prayer we receive from all over the world; where we recite the Divine Office, hour by hour, day by day; where we go to pray silently; where we keep vigil, and where we give thanks. We are content with its plainness, its small size, even its battered wooden floor. The secret to such contentment is to live in the present, not the past or future. The difficulty comes when the present is painful and we want to escape it, but Benedict has already written of that in the fourth step of humility, where he tells us not to tire or give up. We can only do that if we cultivate a life of prayer. Stoicism by itself is not enough because it lacks the all-important element of love. It is love, and love alone, that enables us to bear ‘the intolerable shirt of flame’ with joy and peace, to go on when all seems pain and loss. It is the secret of the Cross — a secret each of us must learn one day .

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The Conversion of St Paul (Again)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1)

Caravaggio’s depiction of the conversion of St Paul is probably one of the best-known paintings of all time, but if you sift through the hundreds of images of it posted online you will notice how much variation there is in the colours and general ‘look’ of the painting. To an ex-printer like me, that comes as no surprise: cameras and monitors introduce an infinite number of small distortions, to say nothing of the different ways we, as individuals, perceive things, especially when we look at them from different angles or in different lights. Instead of dismissing that as ‘just one of those things’, perhaps we can use it as a way of understanding something much harder to put into words.

The longest, loneliest journey Saul of Tarsus ever made was from just outside Damascus, where he was blinded by the light of Christ, to the house of Ananias where his sight was restored and he received his mission to serve. He had been a good man before his conversion but he became a better one after, when he saw that his persecution of followers of The Way had been wrong and he realised that zeal alone is not enough. There must be love and compassion, too. His life henceforth was to be one of ever-expanding knowledge and love of Christ, which meant an ever-expanding love of members of the church. It meant a change of perspective, a re-assessment of values, hard work and sacrifice along with unexpected rewards.

We often forget that Paul grew in grace and understanding, just as our Lord Jesus Christ did and as we ourselves must. As the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end, we may be feeling a little disappointed. There may not have been any major break-throughs. In some places, there may not have been any very obvious efforts to come together in any significant way. We have been too occupied with our own problems or those of the denomination to which we belong.

Perhaps we can take comfort, in the sense of drawing strength and inspiration, from the way in which Caravaggio portrays the moment of the saint’s conversion. All is glare, shock. Saul has been thrown from his horse, blinded, felt condemnation in the voice he hears. But he consents to be led by the hand into the city, where he will become Paul. Becoming fully Paul will take the rest of his life. We see how it works out in the letters he wrote to the young churches and in what we can glean from the Acts of the Apostles. Our work for the unity of Christians will follow the same pattern. We must allow ourselves to be shocked into awareness of the importance of unity and be led by the Spirit into whatever it is God desires for his Church. We do not have answers yet. We do not even have the right questions. But if we do not deliberately place any obstacles in God’s way, we can be quite sure that one day what God desires will come about.

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Star Dust

The announcement that scientists have discovered the oldest material known to exist on earth in the Murchison meteorite is thrilling (see, for example, what the BBC made of it here: https://is.gd/UZpjOA). Older than the earth itself, older than the sun, it is literally star dust — fragments of real stars — and 7.5 billion years old. That conjures up a lovely vision of something glittery and bright. The reality, however, is slightly more prosaic. Ground up, shavings from the meteorite apparently smell like rotten peanut butter, then have to be dissolved in acid for testing.

I’m sure many a homilist will be using this report to make a point which, depending on their temperament, may include any of the following

  • our Creator God existed even before this;
  • our celebrity culture stinks and destroys those who embrace it;
  • the world was made 4,004 years ago and to deny that is to deny scripture, so this can’t be true.

Only the first appeals to me. The discoveries of science are rather like what St Bernard says of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘a wonder and a joy’. The Murchison meteorite and its fellows may hold more secrets to be uncovered, but the lessons we draw from them mainly depend on us and our openness to the unknown. A small mind and a small heart often go together. Let’s hope that ours will be large, with more than a scattering of another kind of star dust, the kind that really matters: love of God and others.

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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On Being Oneself

The statement issued yesterday by the duke and duchess of Sussex is being picked over by the media and every Tom, Dick and Henrietta with any kind of online access. Some applaud; others deprecate. I have no particular interest in the royal family (leaping over 51 candidates with a nearer claim to the throne to ensure the Protestant succession in 1714 doesn’t make me a Jacobite though it does make me feel a little distant from the institution) but I am interested in one of the underlying questions prompted by the statement, viz. how to be oneself. It is both a profoundly moral and profoundly religious question which goes beyond individual personalities.

As a Benedictine and erstwhile medievalist, I have always felt the force of the importance of community, the group. For many, a parallel is to be found in family. The individualism we associate with the Enlightenment is really only possible in a world where we are not dependent on one another for the basics of existence — food, shelter and so on — but can obtain these things for ourselves without reference to community/family. In other words, if we can buy something, we do not have to rely on its being provided by our group. That has not been the case for most people most of the time. Indeed, if parents were not to provide for their children, the human race would have died out long ago. Some degree of mutual co-operation is essential, but the amount may be determined by our economic circumstances — which is why the rich have choices the poor can only dream of.

Benedict sees things differently, of course. He comes from the world of sixth century Rome, and his values are not primarily economic but religious. Someone who can write of the property of the monastery in terms of sacred altar vessels, as he does when addressing the cellarer, is by no means indifferent to the importance of material things, however, nor is he unaware of how they affect the well-being of both individuals and community.

The abbot is to provide everything the individual needs via the cellarer or some other official, while the monastery itself is to be equipped with everything the community is likely to need in order to sustain itself. As a corollary, there is a delicate system of checks and balances, an etiquette all are expected to observe which is meant to ensure that the community not only functions but flourishes. This includes mutual obedience, reverence for the old, kindness towards the young, consideration about when to make requests (even by the sick and cantankerous), patience, giving help when needed — and accepting that when one fails, there is a discipline to be undergone to reassert a right relationship with those who have been affected by one’s shortcomings, whether it be a false note in choir or a more serious matter. Being oneself does not mean doing anything one chooses — that, in Benedictine terms, is to be a sarabaite — but accepting the yoke of the Rule as a way of becoming what one is meant to be and freely doing all those things which once required effort (cf RB 7). It isn’t easy at first, which may be why newcomers to the monastery often have difficulty seeing how their individual quest for God, their sense of personal vocation, fits into the common endeavour of the community. We go to God together, but it takes time to realise that we become more free, more ourselves, as we go on.

This morning, as I mulled over the first Mass reading (1 John 4. 11–18), I had as an echo at the back of my mind the thought that in the Lord’s service is perfect freedom. It is in him that we find our deepest, truest identity, are most genuinely ourselves. Let us pray for all who are learning how to be themselves, especially the young; for those who feel they have made mistakes or lack courage; and for those who are baffled or hurt by the choices made by those they love. It takes most of us a lifetime to learn how to be ourselves, but we have the Lord’s assurance in the gospel that we should not be afraid (Mark 6.45–52). Let us trust him.

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On Starting Afresh

Bro Duncan PBGV sending a message from Beyond

My first blog post of 2020 is not being written under the happiest of circumstances. The situation in the Middle East has brought home to everyone how fragile is the peace between nations, how easily the conventions by which we live can be overturned, and what a terrible price could be exacted for our folly. Yet still we persist. There is an obstinacy about human nature that, for good or ill, seems to determine the course we follow. I have therefore done what any sensible person would do and consulted my canine friends about how to proceed. Bro Dyfrig BFdeB was too busy napping to give a coherent reply, but Bro Duncan PBGV responded from Beyond in his usual good-tempered way. (I think they follow a different horarium up there.)

The trouble with you Human Beans is that you complicate everything. You spend far too much time giving everyone the benefit of your opinion instead of just getting on with the business of living. You waste so much energy saying Mr Trump was right, or Mr Trump was wrong, or the Ayatollah is doing this, that or the other, that you fail to see what is right under your noses. Yes, the world could go up in smoke tomorrow (then you’d all be with me in Beyond, which would be nice) but the chances are that you’ve got some more living to do down below and you need to make what you do worthwhile. You may not be able to do very much, but you can still make life pleasanter for those around you.

You can be kind, considerate and selfless. Rather like a dog, now I come to think about it. You can live in the moment, not in the past or the future. You can be grateful for everything, even the tiniest, silliest little thing — and it doesn’t have to be food. You can be ready for any adventure, no matter how much your old bones creak or the warm fireside lures you. Above all, you can learn to forgive. I don’t remember holding a grudge against anyone, ever (not even when BigSis forgot my Dentastick) and I know it made me a happy boy. Happiness is much under-rated by Human Beans. You think you will find it in having all the things you want. One day you will understand that that it is being with the Person you want that really counts. God is waiting for you Beyond. There’s no rush. He will call you when he’s ready. In the meantime, learn to be a good boy (or girl) like me and live in the sunshine of God’s love (like my successor, The Ginger Fiend).

That’s not quite vintage Bro Duncan, but it makes sense to me. The New Year may be looking a little ragged, but we start every day afresh, with new opportunities and new challenges. The love of God is the constant in our lives. As 2020 unfolds, we may need to remind ourselves of that more often. I have no doubt we will need to share it more often.

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Holy Innocents 2019

This morning I re-read some of my earlier posts about this feast. That for 2017 was hard-hitting in its statistics and left me with a feeling of despondency. Things are no better now than when I wrote. In fact, they have got worse. There are more children said to be living in poverty in the U.K., for example, than there were three years ago. World-wide, there are more children being aborted, exploited, trafficked or exiled than ever before. Yet the Church continues to assert the importance of this feast. Is it merely a reminder that the defenceless will suffer because of those who think they don’t matter? A kind of liturgical corrective to the sentimentality of the secular celebrations of Christmas to which we are exposed? Or is it something more, something that goes deeper, into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation?

I think we can only understand this feast by looking at Christ’s birth, an event that is located in place and time, within the specifics of a particular family. One consequence of this is to change our notion of what matters and our responsibility for others. Christ’s coming into the world means we can no longer plead indifference about the importance of individuals, even those we have never met. Everyone matters. There isn’t a single human being God has not looked at with love, so who are we to argue or act otherwise? The massacre of those young Jewish boys two thousand years ago is an event in time, with its own particularities, but it is also an event that transcends time because it is for ever present in the mind and heart of God. As such, it is both a comfort and a challenge. A comfort, because it assures us that God’s love never ends; a challenge, because it demands a response from us. While there is any child who goes to bed hungry, thirsty, or exploited, any child who is not allowed to be born or live with dignity, we have failed to meet that challenge. We have failed to recognize Christ when we saw him.

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