Climb Every Mountain?

In the past nine days, ten climbers have died on the crowded slopes of Mount Everest. By and large, the media have treated the personal tragedies each of those deaths represent as a matter for regret and censure for the Nepalese government. The subtext is a chaotic lack of organization, greed and an unpreparedness among some that amounts to folly. That narrative is one that fits the West’s competitive and commercial spirit. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Everest, you will scroll through paragraph after paragraph about expeditions to ‘conquer’ the mountain, routes to the summit and so on, until you come to a few short lines about the religious significance of the mountain for the majority of Nepalese and Tibetans. It is a holy place, a living goddess, not just a challenge, another peak to scale. Perhaps, like me, you will recall photos of the litter left by climbers and note, with some shame, that in April this year attempts began to clear another 10,000 Kg of waste. Is that how we treat the holy places of others?

Listening to today’s second Mass reading (Apocalypse 21. 10-14,22-23), which recounts John’s vision of ‘an enormous high mountain’ and the city of God descending from heaven, ought to make us think. Mountains have always been special places where the divine touches us. Sinai, Tabor, the ‘high places’ of Western Christianity, all have a story to tell that goes beyond rock and clay. 

I wonder whether, in our obsession with winning and proving our physical stamina, we have lost sight of something more important. ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,’ sings the Psalmist. Until we recover that reverence, that sense of the holiness of the planet we inhabit, we shall never quite understand why we must forego some pleasures. Conservation isn’t just about cutting our carbon footprint or reducing our use of plastic — all things we or our governments essentially decide for ourselves — it is about realising that our very humanity obliges us to restraint, to a kind of humility that will never be popular and which most of us prefer to ignore. Hillary famously observed that he climbed Everest because it was there. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to, does it?

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Measuring Success and Failure

Today,  when Theresa May is widely expected to announce that she is stepping down as Leader of the Conservative Party and setting out a timetable for her resignation as Prime Minister, there will be a renewed rush to assess her time in office by the criteria of success and failure. I often wonder what we mean by that. Is it as simple as saying, she said she would do something but didn’t (failure) or she did something she said she would (success)? What happens when someone does something we were not expecting? Does our attitude change, according to whether what is done or not done corresponds to our own ideas?

I began with the example of Theresa May because it is topical, but this post is not about politics but the subjectivity we bring to our judgements. Long, long ago, before I became a nun, my banking colleagues would often mutter the phrase, ‘Now we must be objective about this’ before proceeding to act on some apparently irrational basis. Though no-one would ever admit it, the decisions they made often turned out to be just as effective as those where the number-crunchers had sweated days and nights trying to provide rational, and hence demonstrable, grounds for doing something. All this is rather unsettling to those who like to believe that their way of thinking and decision-making is unarguable. Take, for example, the invocation of science by those who are not themselves scientists. Quietnun can become quite impassioned about those who think that science ‘proves’ an assertion is ‘right’. Her background in biochemistry means she lives in what might be called an ever-expanding intellectual universe, where she is constantly being encouraged to consider possibilities she had not previously imagined. Success and failure don’t come into it: the search is all in all.

Can we apply any of that to our own lives? Here at the monastery we quite often hear from people who think their lives are a failure because they haven’t managed to do something or other, and it would be foolish and fundamentally dishonest to pretend that the choices we make have no part to play in what happens to us. But many things are beyond our control. We didn’t decide our genetic inheritance, or the time and circumstances of our birth and upbringing. We do the best we can, but it must be the best. I do think, however, that we should be cautious about accepting the values we see in the society in which we live and judging our ‘best’ by them. Success in the West tends to be seen in material terms, even among those who would describe themselves as religious. The more we have, the more successful we are. Owning a big house and driving a fast car is a mark of our success. Even religious communities/clergy can play that game, boasting of the number of vocations they have received or the number of people who attended services. Failure is identified with loss.

As soon as I say that, you can see where I am going. When the Son of God became man, he stripped himself of the glory that was his. He accepted rejection and endured a painful death on the Cross. But he was no failure. Nor are we in God’s eyes if we seek to be true to Him.

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On Going With The Flow

Yesterday I intended to ask a number of companies for quotations for the monastery’s insurance and arrange for our car to have a mobile M.O.T. Nothing too strenuous, you see, to allow me to fulfil my monastic duties and deal with a backlog of correspondence. What I actually did was contact a number of builders regarding the urgent replacement of some windows, re-paint a laundry pulley, realise that the end of our financial year is almost upon us (so I’ll have to find a way of dealing with various reports) and performed a corporal work of mercy in the vegetable patch by watering some very dry plants. My guess is that most readers could identify with that in general, if not with the specifics. We are constantly having to drop what we think important in order to deal with the urgent. The secular-minded call it ‘going with the flow’, the more religiously-inclined tend to dignify it as responding to what God asks of us here and now.

Part of me agrees with that, of course. We must always be on the alert for what God is actually asking, rather than what we would like God to be asking; but, to be honest, there are times when we wish that God could have another agenda for us. Unfortunately, dwelling too long on the ‘if onlys’ of life tends to make us selfish. Most of us have more than enough to make us profoundly grateful. I know I do. This morning, as I contemplated my trifling irritations, I was chastened by the thought of what others are suffering: those bewildered by grief; those living in poverty; those who don’t have any security whatsoever. Going with the flow is fine, but it would be an immense pity if it made us indifferent to others or lessened our sense of gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. An obvious thought, perhaps, but we can’t always be deep, can we?

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Is Tolerance a Virtue?

One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?

Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?

Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.

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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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Cardinal Pell’s Conviction

I have no idea whether Cardinal Pell is guilty or not. I must either believe that he did indeed do the terrible things he is accused of, or that there has been a grave failure on the part of the Australian justice system. Neither is an attractive proposition. The reports of both accusations and trial left me thinking how very strange some aspects were, but more than that I cannot say. I did not attend the trial, I cannot weigh the evidence, though I can see some of the consequences for the Church in Australia, and that gives me pause. There have been so many shocking revelations about the past, with the Christian Brothers coming in for particular censure, that one wonders how the Church has survived at all. Then one remembers the faith and goodwill of the ordinary, decent Catholic and is reminded, yet again, that it is the grace of the laos, the people of God, that draws others to Christ and keeps them there with him.

This morning the Church in Australia looks battered and bruised. As we pray for all who have been affected by Cardinal Pell’s conviction, not least the cardinal himself and those involved in his trial, let us pray especially for those ordinary, decent Catholics, that they may not lose heart. Our Lenten journey always contains twists and turns not of our making but, if we are steadfast, we shall reach Jerusalem at last and, like Hilton’s pilgrim, know the joy of being with Christ.

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A Book for Lent

One of St Benedict’s directives for Lent is that we should each be given a book that we should read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48). Debate has raged over whether a book of the bible is meant or some other volume. I myself have always inclined to the former view. Lent is a time for deepening our knowledge of Christ through reading the scriptures. Of course, we do that every day, but Lent has a special intensity and focus about it; and the fact that we do not choose for ourselves is important. Our Lent Book comes to us as a gift — sometimes a demanding or uncongenial one — and like all gifts has surprises in store for us.

In previous years, when I have suggested different books to different people, I have been heartened by the number who wrote afterwards, sometimes long afterwards, ‘I did not understand, but now I do! A Lent book does not reveal all its secrets at once. It works upon the soul slowly, agonisingly slowly at times. This year in community we are reading the Book of Psalms as our Lent Book. Given that we recite the whole of the psalter every week, including those psalms some more polite people think ‘not quite nice’ in the mouths of Christians, you may wonder why. The answer is simple. The psalter is the prayer-book of the early Church and, indeed, of Christ himself. It has psalms for every mood, including those we try to hide from ourselves or deny that we feel. Lent is about coming closer to God, and that means taking down the barriers we erect to try to keep him at a distance. So we pray the psalms and admit our desire to curse and rage and grumble just as often as we desire to give thanks and praise. The psalms show us ourselves as we are and the mercy God pours out upon us unceasingly. No wonder St Augustine exclaimed, ‘Psalterium meum, gaudium meum!’ (My psalter, my joy!)

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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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The Four Woes

Reading today’s gospel (Luke 6.17, 20 – 26 ) reminded me how rarely we seem to advert to the less comfortable aspects of Jesus’ teaching — unless, alas, we want to point out the shortcomings of others. The Four Woes are a case in point. We lap up the Beatitudes but hearing that those enjoying wealth, abundance, a largely untroubled existence (laughter) and a good reputation are already having their reward is tough. Most of us living in the West are rich compared with those in the developing world. We have enough to eat; our problems are relatively small; and most of us would admit to an enviable existence for which we should give thanks more often than we grumble. But it is that repeated ‘Alas’ that troubles us. Not enough to make us change, perhaps, but certainly enough to make us feel less secure.

One of the greatest obstacles to holiness is not sin but mediocrity — the feeling that we’re basically all right, Jack, and have no need to overdo things. What if I were to say to you that being satisfied with the status quo, being complacent, is actually a temptation? It may not be sinful in itself but, as St Thomas remarked, there are things which, though not sinful in themselves, partake of the nature of sin and can easily lead to sin.

Today, as we listen to the gospel, it would be good to let it act as an examination of conscience. How far do we accept our shortcomings and moral failures as ‘just the way we are’? How often do we think about the way in which we use the gifts and resources given to us — not just material goods but health, happiness and everything that makes for what we regard as a worthwhile existence? I can assure you I am asking myself these questions this morning.

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