Tolerance v. Indifference

From time to time someone will call me a bigot for the simple reason that I am a Catholic, or they will assume that I ‘don’t really believe all that stuff’ the Catholic Church teaches. Either way, it seems, I am an idiot and perhaps a hypocrite, too. The fact that such people usually live another day after making such pronouncements is, I think, proof of my tolerance; but isn’t it odd how often we accuse people of being intolerant when what we really mean is that they don’t share our beliefs/values — and then laud indifference, not caring, as though it were a positive value?

Pope St John I, whose memoria we keep today, had an eventful life but one which exemplifies the distinction between tolerance and indifference. He had the misfortune to be pope when the Arian Theodoric ruled Rome. While detesting Arian doctrine, John had no difficulty in wishing Arians themselves well and, despite his own frail health, went to Constantinople, to ask the emperor, Justin, to moderate the civil effects of his anti-Arian decree of 523. In this he was largely successful, but Theodoric seems to have suspected some double-dealing (for which there is no proof) and had the luckless pope thrown into prison at Ravenna, where he died of neglect and ill-treatment. John was tolerant; he wasn’t indifferent.

Our experiments with multi-culturalism in the West have often ended in failure precisely because we have confused tolerance (respect for the individual and the willingness to accept difference, however painful) with indifference (an unwillingness to consider whether anything is good or bad). Being tolerant is never half-hearted, never not caring; whereas being indifferent is the lazy way out and easily slides into not bothering at all. Ultimately, tolerance means welcoming the stranger, whereas indifference means ignoring them.

The example of a sixth-century pope may seem a little remote, but I believe it is worth thinking about and asking ourselves whether we are becoming more tolerant or more indifferent. The answer may be chastening.

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Email and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas and Companions

The death of Ray Tomlinson, the creator of email, probably made many of us pause for a moment. Email is both a blessing and a bane. It is immediate, cheap and a huge help in keeping in touch with multitudes of people, especially for those of us who have not yet adapted fully to the smartphone and social media. It is also a significant time-waster, a source of scamming and dangerous when one is rattled about something. As far as I know, no one has yet published, electronically or otherwise, a collection of the world’s greatest emails; and I have a hunch no one ever will. Email is essentially transient, read this moment, forgotten the next.

What a good thing, therefore, that email didn’t exist when Perpetua wrote her account of the circumstances leading up to her martyrdom and that of Felicitas. It is a kind of prison diary, written in the first person and full of the sort of detail that gives the story an amazing vigour. There are two versions of the Passio, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here, and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation into English here. It is one of the earliest texts, if not the earliest, written by a Christian woman to have survived. We are at once under the Carthaginian skies of 7 March, A.D. 203 and can feel the heat, hear the brutal cries and smell the sweat and blood of the arena where an extraordinary display of courage is taking place. There is pathos, too, for Perpetua, the nobly-born, is a nursing mother and Felicitas, a slave, is in an advanced state of pregnancy. As we read the text, we begin to realise that this account is not merely historical, something from nearly two thousand years ago that belongs to a vanished world. It is appallingly, violently contemporary; and the dreams and the arguments Perpetua records as leading inexorably to her death still have the power to shock because they have their dreadful equivalents today.

Let us pray for persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East, especially those who are subject to the brutality of IS and its imitators; and let us not lose hope. SS Perpetua and Felicitas remind us that death is not the end but the entrance into life, and that those who kill the body cannot kill the soul.

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A Little Plea to Monastic Historians

Yesterday I was reading a book on monastic history by a well-regarded historian. No names, no pack-drill, as they say; but the more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. The monastic life the historian was describing and interpreting was so far removed from the reality I have experienced that I found it unrecognizable. Now, you may say that the monastic life of the twenty-first century is a world away from that of the tenth or twelfth, and you would be right; but as Georges Duby argued so persuasively when writing about medieval marriage, many things do not change. There is a commonalty of experience that enables the married person of today to understand much of the life of his/her medieval forebear. But when we come to a life we have not ourselves lived, we have to put our imagination to work very intensely; and that isn’t always easy.

Most people know what it is like to live in a family; comparatively few know what it is like to live in a monastic community. That can affect how we view things and, more important, how we interpret them. So, for example, unless we have experienced the liturgy day after day for years on end, we may mistake how formative it is in the life of the monk. Unless we have actually lived enclosure, we may fundamentally misinterpret how it is understood in the life of the nun. If we do not see how feast and fast flow together, we may stumble in our interpretation of diet. Above all, we may forget that most people, most of the time, are quite sincere about what they do and the reasons for which they do it. They may be mistaken; they may, at times, be unwilling; but, on the whole, I don’t think most people are cynical. Men and women in the Middle Ages didn’t see autonomy in the way we do; a parent’s right to choose one’s husband or wife or determine one’s occupation in life was more generally accepted than it is in the West today.

Therefore, my dear monastic historian, may I ask a favour of you? Before you start writing about monasticism in terms of liminality or achieved status or power elites, please would you familiarise yourself with some of the basic texts and practices of monastic life itself? Read the bible, all the bible (monks and nuns have a quite depressing familiarity with even the most obscure parts of it, and always have had); read the Rule of St Benedict and, if possible, learn it by heart as they do and did; immerse yourself in the silence in which monks and nuns pass the greater part of their day; think long and deeply about the role of the abbot or abbess and a life of single chastity, not as something to be resented or resisted but as that which is intrinsic to the monastic understanding of conformity to Christ. It won’t be time wasted, because it will give you some insight into a life that is, to be frank, a bit odd, a bit difficult to understand. Without God at its centre, monastic life makes no sense at all. Failure to see that makes pretty poor history, too.

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