Was St Benedict an Elitist?

St Benedict ends chapter 38 of his Rule, On the Reader for the Week, with the statement that the brethren are not to sing or read according to rank but according to the edification they give their hearers (RB 38.12). To some, this presents no difficulty. St Benedict had a sensitive ear and merely wished to ensure competence among those who perform some public office in choir or refectory. Others are more squeamish. We live in a world where we play down differences for fear of wounding others or stifling their talents. At the same time, we are aware that inequality is growing. Usually, we measure this in terms of inequalities of wealth or access to some perceived good such as nutrition or healthcare. The difficulty comes when we are confronted, as Benedict was, by inequalities of ability that are innate. For example, I am not much of a singer; my monastic ‘twin,’ who entered the monastery at the same time as I did, had a glorious voice which had been expertly trained. Only an idiot, or someone with a tin ear, would have preferred my singing to hers, and thankfully, as far as I am concerned, nobody did.

Not everyone would agree that that was a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly understandable situation. We still tend to assume that elitism of any kind is bad. I certainly agree that inequalities of wealth and power have a very dangerous side to them, and I reject completely the sense of entitlement many of the rich and powerful assume. There is nothing nastier than seeing someone treat others as rubbish. But I do question whether we sometimes condemn what we see as elitism because we lack the generosity to celebrate the giftedness of others. St Benedict was wise enough and kind enough to regard every monk in his community as infinitely precious to God, no matter what his shortcomings as an individual. But he didn’t allow that to interfere with a very sound judgement about an individual’s suitability for the task in hand. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us, monastic or not.

St Gertrude
if you are looking for a post on St Gertrude, try this: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/11/17/st-gertrude-the-catholic-church-and-women/

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Aftermaths and Consequences

Yesterday we bade a temporary farewell to the builders who have been doing repairs to the monastery. There is a huge amount of cleaning, touching up of paintwork and other tasks to be done, but we assure ourselves it will all be worthwhile in the end. What we are faced with is merely the aftermath or consequence of their efforts. Some, alas, are unintended, like discovering that moths have eaten so much of the calefactory floor covering that it will have to be replaced, but that is by the way. The important lesson is that any activity, any task, involves more than may appear on the surface. Aftermaths and consequences matter.

It is easy to talk about such things in the context of house repairs, political events like elections, or institutional or personal crises; but I wonder how often we apply the idea to our own lives and think about the impact we have on others, not in the vain, narcissistic sense, but in the constructive, helpful sense. A few days ago one of our oblates died. She has left behind the very precious memory of a kind and generous person who dealt with life’s bumps and contradictions with wit and determination. I can’t help reflecting that my personal ‘gallery of heroes’, so to say, is peopled by those whose lives have left a similar kind of memory. Perhaps we might each ask ourselves what sort of aftermath or consequence there will be to our own time on earth, and if we don’t like what we see, change course now, while we still can.

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Remembrance Sunday 2019

There are times when we are empty of words, bereft of thought and feeling, knowing only the numbness of grief. We who live close to the S.A.S. at Pontrilas can never forget the brutality of war or the price some pay that the rest of us may live freely. And the wars of conquest and domination, the wars fought over resources or born of old enmities and the refusal to forgive, the terror and suffering inflicted on the innocent in the name of some ideology, what of them? Today, as we pray for all who died in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we pray also for forgiveness for our own folly and the folly of those who went before, for the obstinacy that will not allow peace to flourish — for the wars that originate in selfishness and pride.

When St Benedict gave to his monks the aim of seeking after peace and pursuing it, he was giving them what we might call a ‘whole life programme’. Peace is not the work of a minute or two. It is not attained by an annual ceremony or wishy-washy goodwill or the kind of sentimentality that refuses to look facts in the face. It requires hard work and sacrifice. Sometimes, it may even cost lives.

Last year’s post on Remembrance Sunday https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/11/10/remembering-and-praying/ contains links to some earlier posts on the subject. Several more may be found by using the search bar.

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Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?

When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?

First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.

Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!

Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?

I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?

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Lesson from a Failed Banker and Ex-Jailbird

Today is the feast of St Callistus — failed banker, ex-jailbird, ex-slave, probably something of an invalid — oh, and pope. And not only pope, but the man who, despite much opposition from such luminaries as Tertullian and Hippolytus (who did not think him strict enough and spread what most historians consider false rumours about him), grasped the importance of reconciling sinners to the Church. He argued that the power of binding and loosing was given not just to Peter himself but to every successor of Peter and that mercy should be shown to the repentant. In the days of the Donatist schism that was a matter of great urgency. I think it is still a matter of great urgency for us today. We are so often inclined not to show mercy, being rather more rigorous than God who seems to tolerate those we disagree with or believe to be seriously wrong about anything or everything (usually the latter).

I am certainly not arguing that nothing matters, that all beliefs are equally valid and that we can endorse anything we please, expecting God to follow suit. Of course not! But today’s feast and Callistus’s decree remind us powerfully of the importance of charity and mercy in our interactions with one another and the way in which they echo God’s own mercy towards us. We are often tempted to assume that we know what others think or mean and judge accordingly, and that can make us unduly harsh or self-confident when a little more reflection and a little more willingness to listen might transform the situation and our understanding of it.

It isn’t just the successor of Peter who has the power of binding and loosing. In a non-sacramental sense, all of us do. We can set others free from the chains of hatred and unforgiveness, if we choose. In so doing, we unbind ourselves. How that works out in particular situations, I can’t say; but I have a hunch that trying to be more forgiving, charitable and merciful will make the world a bit friendlier, a bit more peaceful and, dare I say it, more godly, too. Isn’t that worth trying? And in case you think that we can keep all this delightfully abstract, may I suggest we all examine our consciences. Is there someone against whom we hold a grudge or who we think has done us harm or behaved badly whom we need to forgive? To whom, in short, we must show mercy, as a brother or sister equally flawed, equally living by the mercy of God?

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Political Humility

The ugly scenes in the Commons yesterday may have left many wondering whether we can sink any lower. The terrible truth is, yes we can. Violent language too easily turns to violent deeds. We have only to think of the murder of Jo Cox to recognize how quickly whipping up hatred can lead to death and destruction. The only word I can find to describe the current situation in the U.K. is ‘chaos,’ and it doesn’t look a very creative chaos to me. It is, literally, shocking — shocking us out of our absurd beliefs about ourselves (decent, moderate people) our democracy (Parliamentary democracy, the best in the world) and our future, whether in or out of the E.U. (jam tomorrow, either way). The attempt to pitch Parliament against the people may succeed; we may end up with a country, or should I say countries, given that the Union itself must be at risk, more divided than ever before.

Where do the Churches stand in all this? Has any of them anything to say that is worth hearing? One may be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church is so involved with her own interior problems that she has scarcely registered what is happening to the nation as a whole. Here in the monastery we pray diligently and try to keep abreast of events, but we would be the first to admit that our engagement with politics is necessarily at one remove since we do not adhere to any party line nor take any part in any party political debate. I think our role must be to encourage others; to remind people of good will that not only does what is said or done matter, but also the way in which it is said or done; that actions have consequences; and that the common good is not ‘what’s best for me’ but something larger and more demanding. The section of the Rule of St Benedict that we read today is very pertinent, especially these words:

We descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder erected is our life in this world. (RB 7.7–8)

Humility may not be an obvious quality to associate with politicians but that is not to say it is unnecessary. Dare we hope that our M.P.s will take note? Will we pray that they do?

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Greta Thunberg and Climate Change

One would have to have been living on another planet not to be aware of Greta Thunberg and her campaign to make us all more aware of climate change and the urgent need to change our behaviour. So far, so good. As Benedictines, we are very conscious of the obligation to treat everything on earth with reverence. As individuals, we are convinced of the reality of climate change (Quietnun, being a scientist by training, is particularly eloquent on the subject) and try to ensure that everything we do as a community is consistent with that. But that does not mean that we endorse any one approach to the matter, or that we are entirely comfortable with the way in which some people argue their case. For instance, the exhortations of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, measured against their jet-setting lifestyle, are hardly compelling. The case of Greta Thunberg is much more complex.

Let me say at once that I myself am a little uneasy. What she says strikes me as being true and necessary, and there is a consistency about her conduct that speaks volumes not only about her but also about her family. I am not so sure that I agree with some of her methods, the school strikes being a particular worry of mine. Two things really trouble me, however. First, there is the question of manipulation. How far is she being used by others? At sixteen, she is having to deal with situations most of us would find difficult even at a much older age; and knowing that she has Asperger’s makes me wonder whether undue pressure is being put on her. Second, the amount of vicious scorn poured on her by older adults is completely indefensible. Sometimes it takes the form of outright attacks which betray the envy and hostility of the perpetrators; sometimes it takes the form of seeming concern for her well-being that fools no-one. What nobody can dispute is that Greta Thunberg has done more in a year to highlight the urgency and potential disaster of climate change issues than the rest of us have in over forty years.

So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with two very real concerns. Whenever a young person challenges the complacency of an older generation, there will be sparks. We all admire the fervour and courage of young people, but we do not always take them seriously or we find reasons to play down their importance. In the case of Greta Thunberg there is a danger that the message will be lost because of hostile reactions to the messenger. There is also the danger that she herself will be damaged by the experience she is currently undergoing. The media have a habit of fêting the latest novelty, be it person or idea, then dropping it equally quickly. Just as I think we have a duty to pray for wisdom and decisive action in the matter of climate change, so I would argue that we have a duty to pray for Greta Thunberg herself. We should be grateful to her; and we should care for her as we would for any other young person — more so, perhaps, because she is being exposed to demands and pressures that go far beyond the ordinary. Whether we agree with her is not the point: she is an exceptional person and our response should be akin to the challenge she presents.

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The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

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On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

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The Myths By Which We Live

© Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The word ‘myth’ tends to have two quite different meanings in modern English: one is that of a traditional story used to illustrate or explain some phenomenon; the other is that of some fiction, widely held but ultimately untrue. As an example of the first, think of the old ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. It’s more than an adage, it contains elements of myth. In this case, that of eating fruit making for a healthy diet which means less need for physicians. It’s an uncomplicated example of something true expressed in traditional form.

Now let’s take something more ambiguous. You may have noticed how often World War II has been invoked recently, especially by those who wish to downplay the possible complications of  a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Very few of us now alive played any part in that war and yet, again and again, we hear or see ‘we managed this or that during the War so we can cope with x or y.’ Actually, we didn’t do any such thing; our parents and grandparents did, and I am far from sure they would approve our hijacking of their story for our own ends today. The myth of Britain standing alone against the dark forces of Nazism is a powerful one containing elements of both truth and exaggeration beyond the scope of this post to analyse. What I would question, however, is its appropriateness as an argument in the Brexit debate. To me, it is slightly absurd and can come perilously close to demonising others. It is what I would call an ambiguous myth with elements of fiction in it.

I know some readers will take my introductory illustrations as the subject of this post. They aren’t, but I hope they will help with understanding something less easily examined because most of us don’t often reflect on the stories that make up part of our inner landscape. I want to ask whether there are some religious myths that are having an equally powerful but possibly distorting influence on our lives as Christians and more particularly as Catholics. Take, for example, our idea of a kind of Golden Age Catholicism which we locate in a time other than our own (of course) and which, amazingly, seems to reflect all our own preferences and prejudices. Thus, we have scraps over the liturgy, vestments, devotions, church art and architecture, music and what you will. The essential element in all these conflicts is the fact that we are right and everyone else is wrong, and we have history, or at least our favourite interpretation of it (our myth), on our side to prove it. The results can be disastrous.

The history of the Church is full of examples of misunderstandings and misapplied zeal. At the moment, for example, there is an attempt by some to make everyone receive Holy Communion on the tongue rather than in the hand. Now, there are some good reasons for that, but the way in which some people are presenting their case is so irreverent and accusatory that it undermines their position. It is, quite literally, hateful. Unfortunately, under the guise of a concern for reverence we can all become hugely irreverent. Our desire to impose our own vision on others can extend even to the most personal element in anyone’s life, their prayer. I have myself been taken to task for not praying in the way that some well-meaning folk think I should (I am not a Carmelite nor a Jesuit and find Fr Baker’s simple, old-fashioned, indeed very medieval, way of prayer much more natural to me than anything more structured). 

In monastic life the myths by which we live tend to be more subtle. Our founding fathers or mothers all had to undergo great hardships and trials at the beginning (mainly true) and encountered much opposition (not always true) but won through in the end to live in perfect peace and amity with their local bishop and powerful personages (if only!). But the myth is important and helps to shape the character of the community and define its values. It is when it ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance that we have to be careful. The community living off its past reputation for holiness or the activities in which it once engaged can prevent its current members from being fully open to what the Holy Spirit is asking of it now. For instance, we were early adopters of an internet-based hospitality in which the production of free audio books for the blind and visually-impaired was a significant element. That is not the case today. Technology moves on at an astonishing rate and religious institutes with more resources than are available to us have recognized the potential of web-based activities. We have ceased to produce audio books and are looking again at how we use the internet to reach out to people. We have no plans to give up our online ministry, but we know we must adapt to changing times and circumstances, not cling rigidly to the past. There must be no compromise about our primary aim, which is to seek God, but integrating that search with our service of others requires thought and prayer and will inevitably involve mistakes of one kind or another. The myth must be re-assessed.

I hope I have written enough to suggest a few questions. What are the myths by which you live, either as an individual or as a family — or perhaps as some other entity, e.g. a business? Do they help, or do they imprison you in a past or an attitude that is not genuinely life-giving? In other words, do your own myths encourage you to go forward into an uncertain future or do they hold you back, fearful of what may lie ahead? How does grace come into the picture? As summer comes slowly to an end, the idea of fruitfulness comes to the fore. Oughtn’t it to play a part in our own lives, too?

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