Does it Matter What the Churches Do?

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I thought aloud about how we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in the light of the recent withdrawal agreement and on-going Brexit debate, I have been musing on the role of the Churches. There are those who think that the Churches should be entirely excluded from political discussion (though they are often happy for the Churches to pick up the tabs, so to say, for anything the State is reluctant to fund); others expect the Churches to give some kind of moral leadership (though they tend to be selective about what is to be deemed ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t); and others again who think all religion is irrelevant and the Churches especially so (though some seem quite ready to reap the benefits of the Churches’ educational work, for example, as in the case of Professor Alice Roberts). What interests me, however, is the role of the Churches in a post-Brexit world. Some are quietly preparing for a social doomsday, having taken to heart warnings about potential food shortages, unemployment and increased poverty. I think we can take the Churches’ response to such things for granted. Although some may dislike my saying so, Christians always respond generously to appeals for help and take an active part in charitable works that provide food and shelter for the needy. What is of more interest to me is how the Churches will meet the challenge of a Britain severed from the rest of Europe and more isolated internationally than she has been for over forty years.

The brave new world posited by those who think Brexit a good thing tends to look to a golden future some years hence. There is comparatively little acknowledgement that the immediate future could be difficult, though in recent weeks even such ardent Brexiteers as Jacob Rees-Mogg have conceded that the benefits of Brexit may be a long time a-coming. In such circumstance, I suggest that what the Churches do is of critical importance. There may be comparatively few church-goers in Britain today, but the influence of the Churches is still felt; and one of the areas in which that influence is important is in the sense of international connectedness and engagement. As a Catholic, I have always had a vivid sense of belonging to an organization that transcends national boundaries. Sometimes that in itself has led to difficulty, as when directives come from Rome that reflect the situation in Africa or Asia, for example, or a single kind of vernacular is imposed that is far removed from the spoken English of these Islands,. On the whole, however, the international character of Catholicism does us a useful service. We are constantly being reminded of our cross-border connections. Every time Mass is said, the pope of the day is named in the Eucharistic Prayer; papal encyclicals are read from our pulpits and so on and so forth. But is that enough? Will the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — have to work harder to maintain that sense of engagement?

Everyone knows that the advent of the internet and Social Media has transformed how we see and interact with the rest of the world, but many who initially embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm are now becoming tired of its negative aspects. Giving up Social Media, abandoning the internet, disengaging is becoming increasingly popular. We have had our fill of online anger, trolling and bullying; we don’t want ‘news’ we can’t trust; we are suspicious of the way in which we are being manipulated by China, Russia or even our own government. I must confess that I have myself been tempted to disengage, but I am held back by one thought. If we abandon cyberspace to the demons of our culture, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the consequences. If the Churches do not think long and hard about how they can best use the opportunities offered by the internet to create and maintain a sense of connectedness with other peoples, they will have failed in part of their mission — only a part, however. I am not one of those who think the internet is the solution to everything. The bigger challenge facing the Churches in a post-Brexit world will be linked to opposition to isolationism, moral, philosophical and actual. How we shall meet that challenge, I don’t know, but I am convinced that the role of those of us committed to prayer in the monastic tradition will be as important in the twenty-first century as at any time in the past. The paradox contained in that statement, like the tension between being in but not of the world, is one that each of us must work out for ourselves, not just as individuals but as members of a greater whole.

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The Liturgical Year’s End

This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King and enter upon the last few days of the liturgical year. Already some are celebrating Christmas when we haven’t even begun Advent, while dark mutterings about ‘commercialism’ and so on can be heard in certain quarters. I think myself that the main problem is that we are reluctant to live in the present. We are always either looking back or looking forward. The past allows us certainty; the future, endless possibility. The present, alas, offers only reality, and humankind cannot bear very much of that. Moreover, Christmas without any preparation is an enticing prospect. We can ignore or skip much that is demanding so that we end up with no giving of the Law; no bondage in Egypt; no trekking through the desert; no covenants made and broken, then renewed again; no prophets, no exile, no Maccabean wars; just plunging straight into the Incarnation and happy ever after. Only, we know it doesn’t work like that. We cannot have Christmas without Advent recalling us to our senses and reminding us of the long history of the Jewish people’s search for God and our own place in it, at the very end, the wild olive grafted onto the ancient stock.

There was a time when I thought of the solemnity of Christ the King as an unwarrantable intrusion into this process. I almost despised it as a modern feast that spoke more of the political preoccupations of the earlier twentieth century than of anything more ‘spiritual’. But then I began to see how shallow my thinking was. To proclaim the lordship of Christ over everything that exists when dictators stalked the land; to assert the truth and beauty of following the gospel when many were seeking salvation in material things/totalitarian regimes, whether of left or right: that was not small or weak or contemptible. It was to assert not only the power of God to transform our human situation but also his freedom to do so in a way and at a time of his choosing. It was a message of hope in dark times; a re-statement of Christian faith and love in a world that has never really embraced it in all its fullness. We have always wanted Christmas without Advent, Easter without Lent; but it cannot be.

At Christmas we shall indeed celebrate the Incarnation: God’s way of definitively entering human history and redeeming it, but we are not there yet. These last days of the liturgical year are very precious. They put before us the record of human sin and ingratitude and warn us of the sufferings we heap upon ourselves if we are reckless or indifferent. We know, in our heart of hearts, how badly things go wrong when we do not allow God full scope in our lives, but how reluctant we are to admit it! This Sunday gives us the opportunity to reflect, live in the present and begin preparing for Advent. In other words, an opportunity to let God take back control.

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The End Times and Hope

There is only one thing more terrifying than the Mass readings we have as the end of the liturgical year draws near, and that is the people who claim to be able to understand and interpret them. Every generation tends to see signs of the approaching end. Calamity follows calamity, and we are plunged further and further into gloom and despondency. Of course, that is not the case for all. Our present political difficulties seem to be encouraging some to hope for high office for themselves, and I daresay some entrepreneurs are continuing to make money out of what others experience as disasters; but for most of us, there is a recognition that we are entering into a kind of darkness where old certainties are less assured. Our interior landscape mirrors the exterior, and it can be bleak.

It is at such times that the virtue of hope is both most necessary and perhaps most difficult to practise. We try will-power, with little success; we lecture ourselves (or even worse, someone else lectures us); then we grit our teeth and  just soldier on. There is something to be said for simply doing our best and accepting that it isn’t perfect. Hope is what I call a cinderella virtue. We tend not to notice it until we need it, but when we do , how hope can transform a situation!

Most of us have something we are hoping for. Some of our hopes are slightly absurd — wanting great wealth to fall into our laps, for example — others are more modest — being able to cope with illness or a practical problem, for instance — but, whatever we hope for, we know that wishing alone won’t make things happen. We have to pray and work. This morning as we listen to the words of the gospel (Mark 13.24–32), let us keep our hopes high and prepare for the end times with confidence in our Saviour Jesus Christ. There is no other way.

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Armistice Day 2018

Today
we pray for all who have died in
or as a consequence of war,
whether as combatants or civilians;
we pray for
those maimed in body or mind,
those still subject to armed conflict,
and those who grieve.
We ask the Lord’s forgiveness,
a firm purpose of amendment,
and the grace to seek peace and pursue it.
Amen.

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Remembering and Praying

Throughout the year a vast tide of blood-red poppies has been sweeping over the land. They cascade from church pulpits and castle battlements, flow down lamp posts and spill out into municipal parks and private gardens. Poppies are tied to radiator grilles, pinned to buttonholes, printed on scarves and dangle from pet collars. Silhouettes of World War I Tommies stand in graveyards, surprise us on street corners, burst out of hedges and break the skyline as no real soldier ever would. On Sunday, in a huge act of collective remembrance, Britain will mark the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day with memorial services and parades, a two-minute silence and the plangent tones of a bugler sounding the Last Post. It will not be without controversy, however; for, as each year passes, and the personal connection some of us have with those who died in World War I or II begins to fade, the whole idea of remembering becomes more problematic, particularly as we do not seem to agree about what we are remembering or why.

Problems with the idea of remembrance
For me, as a Catholic, the act of remembering is relatively uncomplicated because it is always associated with prayer. During the two-minute silence, I pray for the dead — all the dead who have died in war, whatever side they were on — and I ask God to teach us how to live at peace with one another. A friend once challenged me on this, asking how I could pray for those who have been guilty of war crimes. My reply was simple: prayer isn’t a reward for being good (i.e. being on the ‘right’ or winning side); it isn’t some kind of Good Conduct medal we bestow on those we deem worthy of it; it is an acknowledgement that sin and suffering have scarred the face of humanity and we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. This kind of prayer is a prayer of repentance, a plea for help in which gratitude and regret are equally mixed; and it is our privilege to offer it for the dead and for ourselves.

But what of those who don’t or can’t pray, for whom Remembrance Sunday has nationalistic, even jingoistic, overtones, or who see the commemoration as an exercise in collective nostalgia, shot through with sentimentality? Is there a point at which we should stop remembering, or is the problem more to do with how we remember? There is something to be said for both. To my mind, a centenary marks a natural division. Those who fought in the First World War are now all dead, as are those who took part in the earlier conflicts we now forget or leave to the historians to recall. How we remember is more complicated. We do not simply pray for the dead on Remembrance Sunday, we surround the day with the trappings of Establishment and nationalism or kidnap it to advance an agenda of our own about Brexit, race or empire, to name just a few. I question whether that is what those who took part in World War I or World War II would wish us to do — or even understand.

How older generations looked at war
For instance, I have been pondering how my parents and grandparents thought about war. The men went off to fight because it was their duty, so they said, but they had no personal animosity or grievance against those with whom they fought. They did not hate; they did not think themselves superior; they believed, most of the time, in the cause for which they fought, but they weren’t blind to the contradictions inherent in it. One of my grandfathers was blown up in an early British tank, survived that, then spent the rest of the war as a P.o.W. in a Silesian salt mine. He considered himself lucky, despite what it did to his health. My other grandfather served in what later became the Fleet Air Arm, saw some terrible action but also survived, then lost two of his sons in World War II. Yet he bore his losses silently. I never heard him speak a single word against anyone. War wasn’t glorious, it was brutal; building the peace was what mattered, and that was the task he and others of his generation took to heart.

I can remember my father talking about his experience at El Alamein and other battlefronts, always hoping the world would never again be plunged into total war, always sad that there had been so much loss of life on both sides, so many civilians killed, so much beauty and history destroyed. I also remember the father of a friend, who had himself been imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, rapping on the dinner table and saying that the lesson we had to learn from history was not what Nazis could do to Jews but what human beings can do to one another. I don’t think they were unique, but how I wish we heard their voices now rather than the highly selective voices of the media and popular historians!

Has our focus changed?
Are we in danger of losing the kind of historical perspective I have tried to sketch and substituting something less truthful, precisely because those voices have fallen silent? During the course of this year I have begun to feel that we are. The poppies and the silhouettes and other artworks are fine, but perhaps they change the focus of what we are supposedly commemorating and allow other elements to creep in. War as spectacle, war as the voicing of views and attitudes that have more to do with us than with the fallen, makes me uneasy. As a corollary, I would argue that this year’s commemoration of the Armistice should be the last. That does not mean that we should cease to pray or reflect on what war is and does — far from it. Nor do I think that we should abandon those who suffer even now from war and the effects of war. On the contrary, I should like to see much more help and understanding for those who suffer PTSD, whose limbs and lives have been shattered, for example. But I think we need to question more rigorously what our acts of remembrance are meant to achieve and why we surround them with so much that is alien, if that is the right word, to those who actually did the fighting and dying we commemorate.

A commentator said recently that in politics people are driven by four things, love, hope, hate and fear, and the two most powerful are hate and fear. It is true that society has a way of creating objects of hatred and fear, and I have asked myself several times whether we are simply prolonging the quarrels and tragedies of the past as a way of avoiding some unpalatable truths in the present. The British obsession with Germany and with Hitler is a case in point. We refuse to let it go and thereby show ourselves still bound, and, what is worse, perpetrate a new injustice. We do not need the memory of war to validate what we are now.We gain nothing by picking away at old wrongs; we need to learn from them instead. Perhaps we forget that we are not the heroes we celebrate, nor do we become heroes by association or by demonising some enemy, old or new. Do we use the past as a way of avoiding commitment to what the present and future ask of us?

A recommitment to service
To an earlier generation concepts like duty and service meant something. They were the motivation for conduct that might otherwise seem unfathomable. I daresay there are some who regard the stoicism with which our parents and grandparents endured privation and loss as silly, but we can think and say such things because of the sacrifices they made. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the dead to reflect more deeply on the values of duty and public service and how we measure up to them today? Quite how we do that I’m not sure because the language of public discourse seems to have lost that important element of civility. We talk of deals and our own best interest, what’s good for us in the narrowest sense, not what would make the world a better place. But it does not have to be so. We can think anew about how to serve, how to do our duty, what our duty consists in, and surely everyone would benefit.

If this should be the last Armistice Day we mark in a public way, renewing our commitment to service would be a sign that the poppies and the bugle calls were not mere sentimentality or self-indulgence but tokens of our having learned the lessons of the past, of our being ready to forge a new and better future. It would be proof that the Great War for Civilisation was not fought in vain. I pray it may be so.

Two earlier posts on Remembrance Sunday

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/08/remembrance-sunday-2015/

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/11/10/remembrance-sunday-2013/

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Hatred

We hear a great deal about ‘hate crimes’ that sometimes strike a trivial note, then something dreadful like yesterday’s mass slaughter at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, happens and we understand what hatred really means. It is not ‘mere’ prejudice or dislike translated into boorish behaviour. It is murderous — nothing less than the desire to kill, destroy, and inflict deadly harm. It is difficult even to think about such a thing, but think we must because the kind of violence displayed in Squirrel Hill is no different from that displayed by Islamist terrorists or any other individual or group that believes it has the right to exterminate others. The President of the United States of America is on record as saying that had the synagogue had armed guards, the massacre would not have occurred. To me, that sounds absurd. Surely, we should be trying to create a culture, indeed a world, where violence is unacceptable? If our default position is, we need guns to defend ourselves, we should not be surprised if those with criminal intent take us at our word and use the very same means to do us harm.

This morning we pray with and for our Jewish brethren and all who have been victims of hatred and persecution. For me, there is something peculiarly horrible about an attack on people praying in a church, mosque, synagogue or other place of worship. It is a profanation of the holy name of God, destruction of what God holds most precious — human beings. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, and we honour him best by honouring those he has created in in his own image and likeness. Let us remember that, however much provoked we may be.

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Something for Liturgists to Remember

We are almost at the end of the liturgical code in the Rule of St Benedict. We have read through the chapters that tell us how many and which psalms and canticles are to be said at the various Hours of the day and noted Benedict’s instructions about the way in which they are to be performed. We stand in honour of the gospel; we sing the Invitatory psalm of Vigils rather slowly, so that latecomers have time to arrive; we know when to sing alleluia and when not. But it is only after all these regulations that we come to chapter 19 and Benedict’s treatment of the dispositions we need to sing the Divine Office worthily. How many liturgists today would think of leaving to the end of their treatise what most of us would think of as the starting-point?

Benedict reminds us that God and his angels are always present and urges us to ‘sing the psalms in such a way that mind and voice may be in harmony.’ (RB 19.7) There are times when the routine of the Office may overtake us, when we sing the words and perform the ritual gestures with less than full attention, but that is clearly not the ideal. I think the placing of this chapter is an oblique comment on the temptation to think that the correct performance of the liturgy is enough; it isn’t. Our hearts and minds must be fully engaged, too, and as anyone committed to reciting the Divine Office every day will admit, that is not always easy. Moreover, although Benedict makes plain elsewhere that he isn’t keen on those with very modest singing or reading abilities acting as cantors or giving out antiphons, he assumes that the choral office will be the prayer of the whole community. It is not the preserve of the chosen few. The corollary is, of course, that everyone has the duty to prepare properly. Those who need better knowledge of the psalms and lessons, for example, are told to devote the time between Vigils and Lauds to studying them (RB 8.3). As we shall see elsewhere in the Rule, mistakes caused by negligence are subject to correction. Benedict will not excuse any slovenliness or inattention.

So, what can we take from this for today, especially if we are not monks or nuns? I think in the first instance we can take heart. Prayer is important, and the common prayer of the community, be it the local congregation or that of the universal Church, has special value. It requires of us more than mechanical participation. It is a means of entering into the prayer of Christ himself, ‘the chief prayer of the psalms’ as St Augustine calls him, which means we must make an effort to be attentive. Little by little prayer changes us. One day, we may change the world — but only insofar as we have allowed Christ to become all in all to us.

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The Gentleness of Christ

I love Dante’s characterisation of St Luke, whose feastday it is, as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, scribe of the gentleness of Christ. Gentleness isn’t a quality that gets a very good press these days. We seem to admire more those who are loud in their own praise, the doers of deals, the ‘strong men’ of the Kremlin and the White House. Those who do value gentleness are often considered to be milksops, people who exalt weakness because they are incapable of strength. What a topsy-turvy way of looking at things! Only the truly strong and brave know how to be gentle, because to be gentle is to admit the truth of any and every situation and meet it with dignity and resilience. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the gentle man par excellence; the one who, in Julian’s words, ‘was never wroth’ but looked upon our sins with the eye of mercy, even as he hung upon the cross to die for us.

Can we emulate such gentleness in our own lives? The English origins of the word suggest nobility, and we would all like to be noble; but there is something more if we look at the Latin gentilis from which our English word comes. Gentilis literally means belonging to the same clan or gens; so to be gentle is to be of the same family, the same blood or, as we might say today, one with the other. I think that if we look at the life of Christ, especially as portrayed by St Luke, we can see immediately how closely Jesus identified with others. His courtesy towards women, his patience with his disciples even when they were jockeying for position, these spring from an understanding and human sympathy that we can try to cultivate. To be gentle with others is not to say ‘anything goes’ or allow others to trample us at will. It is to find in Christ the courage and strength we need to meet everyone and everything with the same compassion and generosity of spirit — to be, in other words, channels of his love and grace to the world.

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Universal and Local: Being Catholic in England

Sometimes being a Catholic in England can feel a little weird. We may belong to the largest Church in the world, but here we are a minority. Occasionally we may be reminded of that fact in no uncertain terms. We are not part of the Establishment, and although we have a few ‘old families’ among our number, many assume that if we have a British surname we are of Irish extraction. If our surname is Italian or Polish, that merely confirms the suspicion of our being alien! Our churches, by and large, reflect their origins as Mass centres, built to house the largest number of people as cheaply as possible. When people do come across architectural gems or learned clergy or religious, it seems to surprise them. Catholicism is still often thought of in terms of repository art, overbearing and ill-educated clergy and, sadly nowadays, the abuse of children. Catholic laity seem not to be thought of at all, unless it be in connection with protests outside abortion clinics or attempts to raise awareness of creeping euthanasia policies and such-like. Personally, I think the fact that Catholic laity are so identified with pro-life advocacy is one of the glories of the Church; so, too, is the fact that one rarely goes into a Catholic church and does not see someone praying quietly in a corner. We may not articulate our faith with the clarity and precision of the professional theologian, but we do our best to live it. Part and parcel of that faith is our low-key devotion to the saints.

Today the Universal Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels (see earlier posts, eg https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/10/02/are-guardian-angels-redundant/) but here in Herefordshire we celebrate the feast of St Thomas de Cantilupe, also known as St Thomas of Hereford, our local saint and, happily, one whom Christians of all denominations can look to as he lived and died before the Reformation. That highlights for me an important aspect of Catholicism. Being part of the Universal Church does not do away with the local and particular. Thomas was what might be called today a Buckinghamshire boy who made good: educated at Oxford, Paris, and Orleans, he taught canon law at Oxford, becoming Chancellor of the University in 1261. His subsequent career is best described as ‘varied’. There were times when he found it opportune to spend a little time abroad. He sided with Simon de Montfort and the baronial party which was slightly awkward as he was Chancellor of England at the time. When he became bishop of Hereford (a duty he seems to have fulfilled with zeal and devotion), he clashed with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, and was excommunicated. Thomas went to Rome to resolve the matter and died near Orvieto in 1282. His body was brought back to Hereford for burial and in 1320 he was canonised. Today, one can go and kneel at his shrine in the cathedral and pray before a small relic of the saint given by the archbishop of Westminster. Thomas will be remembered in the Office and in the Mass, but it will be without fanfare or exuberance because he is one of us. He is not merely the Buckinghamshire boy made good; he is the ordinary English Catholic made good — what we all hope to become. May his prayers and the prayers of our Holy Guardian Angels assist us.

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Never Despair of God’s Mercy

rocks in a lake

The title of this post comes from today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict. It is the last tool of good works named in the chapter and one on which most of us rely all our life (RB 4.76). This morning, with the folly of Brexit again before our eyes and the Church as much in turmoil as ever, it is something to cling to, like a rock. But rocks are not only places of refuge: they can also provide the footing from which to launch ourselves into the deep. The mercy of God is like that, too. It upholds us in times of trouble and propels us forward when we need to go further into the mystery of God and our own vocation. It takes thought, prayer and humility to decide which is which. Let us pray that we may each discern correctly what is being asked of us today.

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