Lepanto, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (formerly, Our Lady of Victory), and Living with Islam Today

The title of this post proclaims that I am both an insider, for I write as a Catholic and erstwhile historian, and an outsider, for I also write as a Benedictine trained in an English tradition which regards the rosary as a purely private devotion and I am clearly not a Muslim. However, it is the nearest I can get to ‘thinking aloud’ about the significance of this day and the focus it puts on something many of us find perplexing and, at times, troubling: how Christians in the UK live with Islam.

Some Obligatory Historical Background
If you want an overview of the Battle of Lepanto and its importance from a European perspective, I suggest you read this Wikepedia post. It’s not too long, and it does note the link between between the rosary and the victory over the Ottoman Empire. Pius V instituted ‘Our Lady of Victory’ as an annual feast to commemorate the victory, which he attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Dedications to Our Lady of Victory had preceded this papal declaration. For example, Simon de Montfort  built the first shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving for the Catholic victory over the Albigensians at the Battle of Muret on 12 September 1213.  However, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of the feast from ‘Our Lady of Victory’ to ‘The Holy Rosary‘. Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the General Roman Calendar in 1716, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. Pope St Pius X changed the date to 7 October in 1913, as part of his effort de-clutter the Sunday liturgy of devotional feasts and commemorations. In 1960 Pope St John XXIII changed the title to ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’.

A Contemporary Dilemma
You can see from the above that today’s feast confronts us with something our politicians are often nervous about: the Christian origins of Europe. Anyone who, like me, has been a student of Spanish history, will readily acknowledge the interplay of Judaism and Islam with the Christian history of Europe, including not only the contributions made by Jews and Muslims but also the terrible sufferings unjustly inflicted on those who did not conform to the religious norms of the day. The problem, as I see it, is that today we are both hesitant about identifying with our Christian heritage and woefully ignorant about the difference between mainstream Islam and the Wahabist perversion of it that has perpetrated so much terror and violence — chiefly, let it be said, against other Muslims.

When Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, delivering an academic lecture in Regensburg, quoted (without any approval or identification with the sentiments of the author) a few sentences expressing a negative view of Islam, he released a maelstrom. Many commentators dismissed the pope as out of touch, prejudiced, etc, etc. They did not bother to read what he actually said, nor did they understand or care about the context in which he spoke. He simply failed to conform to their ideas of what was acceptable. Others seized on his words to ‘justify’ their hate-filled torrents of abuse (in both directions). It was ugly; it was unnecessary; but it was also revealing.

It would be foolish to deny that Christians in the UK do have a problem with Islam. Most of us have Muslim friends whom we love and respect and know to be as far away from from being terrorists (the usual accusation) as it is possible to be. We also know that the media aren’t very interested in stories about mutual co-operation and help. They bear a great responsibility for the negativity towards Islam in this country. But it wouldn’t be honest, either, to dismiss the concerns of people who are troubled by the way in which some elements of Islamic practice seem to be undermining historical freedoms and customs. Many are concerned, for example, about the operation of Sharia courts, instances of the separation of men and women at university lectures, or the use of Halal meat in general catering. It isn’t just an unease with difference (think how exotic Catholicism seemed to the average Englishman of a hundred years ago!), but a sense that something important we can’t quite identify and can’t in any way control is being changed.

I see today’s feast as an invitation to reflect and pray about my own attitides — from my wimpish silence at times about what I truly believe to my casual complicity with views I’ve been too lazy to think or do anything about. That may not sound very much, but in the past it has made me read the Koran and Muslim commentaries on the Koran. It has also made me challenge, at least interiorly, much of the media’s speculation about the motives of others and their narratives of Islam in the UK. I think it matters because to believe something untrue about another is a great injustice; it is an even greater injustice to act out of that untruth. It is also, for a Christian, wrong to deny our Christian heritage or play down or dismiss its importance for today. The key to reconciling these sometimes contradictory aspirations is surely the search for truth and the desire to live in peace and harmony with all. May Our Lady, revered in both the Christian and Muslim traditions, aid us with her prayers.


The Battle of the Somme: Thoughts from Inside a P.E.T. Scanner

Yesterday, at 5.00 a.m., I drove to Oxford to have another P.E.T. scan*. Usually, I spend my time fighting claustrophobia and trying to pray. Yesterday was slightly different. I had a box placed on my tummy to measure my respiration rate. It knocked against the inside of of the tube in time with my irregular breathing and induced a new panic: was I going to pass out there and then? I also discovered that the minor aches and pains attendant on my deteriorating condition made holding my arms above my head painful. I was just on the point of having to say, ‘I can’t hold this position any longer’ when the scan came to an end. It was then, and only then, that I thought of what I had intended to make the substance of my prayer: the Battle of the Somme and our need to learn the lessons of the Great War, not repeat them.

The discomfort I experienced inside the P.E.T. scanner was trivial in comparison with what soldiers on both sides experienced at the Somme. I didn’t die; I didn’t even have to put up with the discomfort for very long. But there are similarities, too. None of those who died or were wounded wanted to be; none of them wanted to experience the mud of the trenches, the rats, the barbed wire, any more than anyone really ‘wants’ to be ill or experience some medical procedures. Those who were fighting had to trust the judgement of others, or at least submit to it, with no very clear or optimistic view of the future. Idealism was wearing thin by 1916. The Great War for Civilisation was proving bloody and brutal, and there seemed no end to it. My paternal grandfather never spoke of it, couldn’t speak of it — the wounds in the mind last long after the wounds in the flesh have more or less healed.

Today we shall affirm our desire that Europe should never see war again. We shall proclaim our gratitude to those who gave their lives. We shall pray for their souls and surround ourselves with poppies and wreaths and national flags, but I wonder how many of us will be asking what more we should do, what more I should do? How do wars start? They start, surely, in the hearts and minds of people just like us. They start with wanting what we don’t have, or refusing to forgive some perceived insult or wrong, or believing ourselves superior to others, or even just exulting in physical strength and wanting to lord it over others. We may balk at such a description of ourselves, protesting that we are guiltless of such enormities; but the political parties to which we belong, the countries of which we are citizens, may hold such attitudes.

I don’t myself agree with those who are drawing doom-laden analogies between our present political chaos in the U.K. and the inter-war years in Germany, but I don’t think we can be complacent. If our leaders are in a mess, and the vanity and the in-fighting makes me think they are, there is no reason why we should be — but we will have to make sure we don’t blindly follow suit. This is a time for holding coolly to what we believe to be right and for working for the common good. How we define the common good will, of necessity, vary; but I think most of us would agree that we want people to feel secure, to have jobs, food, shelter, education, healthcare. Those of us who believe in Christ will know that this is more than just a vague wish or political ideal. It is a moral imperative, and Christians must be the first to take up the challenge. May I suggest that we need to think and pray about that today if we are truly to honour the sacrifice of those who died in 1916?

* Positron Emission Tomography. The process involves being injected with a radioactive sugar solution, drinking vast quantities of cold water on an empty stomach, then, after waiting an hour for these things to circulate round the body, half an hour or more of lying flat, arms raised above one’s head, inside a noisy metal tube. A three-dimensional image of the body is produced, which enables an assessment to be made of the progress of disease and how individual organs are affected.


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.


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.


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.