On Being Tired

Here is a word of encouragement for anyone who is tired. For the last few days I have myself been feeling as though every effort were beyond me, so it comes from the heart. The community even has a word for this state of weariness — exhaustipation — from which you can see it is commoner than you may have imagined. Everyone experiences it from time to time. The problem is that tiredness is often associated with grumpiness and a feeling of guilt. We tell ourselves we should be doing more; and because we are angry with ourselves, we tend to lash out at our nearest and dearest. We may not say anything hurtful, but most of us are quite good at the pointed silence, the ‘hard stare’ of Paddington Bear or the selective deafness of the PBGV — endearing in them, but not so much in adult Human Beans.

The solution to the problem is actually very simple: a supernumerary nap, a quiet nodding off over a book (or even an email), a period of reflection requiring closed eyes and an absence of engagement with those around us, but with this difference. Our restorative nap needs to be ushered in with a prayer, so that even our sleep can become prayerful. I have always taken as the motto for what I call the Prayer of Gentle Drift those encouraging words from the Song of Songs, Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat. I sleep, but my heart keeps watch (Song of Songs, 5.2). In sleep, we cannot erect any barriers to God or his will as we do when we are awake and on our guard, so that’s worth thinking about. Solomon was a wise man. Let us be wise in our generation, too.

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St Agnes and the Exploitation of Children

St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)
St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)

We know very little about St Agnes, except that she was martyred at an early age and was the inspiration for much of St Ambrose’s thinking and writing about consecrated virginity. Neither martyrdom nor consecrated virginity seems to exercise much appeal nowadays, which may be why this day is more often associated with the basilica of Sta Cecilia in Rome, where the pope will bless the lambs whose wool will be made into the pallium worn by the pope and archbishops. There is a curious fitness about that, because I think it underlines the way in which we tend to filter out everything that is disturbing or ugly and substitute what easily becomes sentimental. Fluffy white lambs are much more attractive than broken limbs or children and adolescents abused or exploited by adults.

A third of the world’s poorest girls are denied access to education, according to a report issued by the U.N. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51176678). The number of boys and girls who are homeless, living in sub-human conditions in refugee camps, working as bonded labour, forced into marriage or otherwise exploited is frighteningly large. In the U.K. we have learned, to our shame and disgust, of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by so-called pillars of society — clergy, teachers, doctors, parents, relatives and many more — and have been horrified by some of the high-profile cases of neglect reported by the media. The IICSA reports and the recent BBC documentary on Bishop Peter Ball have been sickening in their exposure of the depravity of which the human heart is capable.

Most of us protest, quite rightly, that we condemn any and all such behaviour — then we go off and hurl insults at Greta Thunberg or say of a young boy knifed to death by a drugs gang that ‘he got what he deserved’ and do not register the inconsistency. If we truly believe that children should be respected and protected, we need to examine our own conduct first. The manufacturer who sexualises the clothing worn by the young; the singer or influencer who foists on children the acceptability of conduct they are not yet intellectually or emotionally ready for; the parent or teacher who abdicates responsibility for those entrusted to their care; the pastor who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — indeed, anyone and everyone is capable of the massive self-deceit that leads to the abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents.

Instead of dismissing St Agnes as one of those saints who are no longer ‘relevant’ to our times, it would be far better to see her as someone who can provide a valuable corrective to our treatment of young people today. Her courage, her clear-sighted love of Christ, her youthful fragility, which was so much stronger than the brutal power of those who put her to death, make her both inspiring and loveable. I admit, teenagers are not always loveable all the time, and younger children can be maddening in their own unique way, but unless we see and love in the young that which God sees and loves in them, how can we truly claim to be his disciples?

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The Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

Today we return to the liturgy’s Ordinary Time. That has always seemed to me something of a misnomer. To anyone who lives in a monastery the ordinary is really extraordinary, every moment of every day freighted with meaning and grace, leading us deeper and deeper into the paschal mystery. Even the words we say again and again or the gestures we routinely perform are transformed into runways into God. A deep bow during the gloria at the end of every psalm reconnects us with our creatureliness as we face the ground, then raises us to our new identity as ‘sons in the Son’ as we stand erect. And to those of us who are, so to say, ‘brands snatched from the burning’, the sense of the preciousness of the ordinary can never be extinguished. The raindrop on the window pane, the weed growing through the asphalt, the feel of the sun or wind on our cheek, these are ordinary things, but they are miracles, too.

A personal thanksgiving
Most of us like to mark anniversaries and the passage of time. Today I have a very personal reason for giving thanks. Six years ago today a letter was sent confirming a diagnosis of metastatic leiomyosarcoma. The cancer had spread to my lungs (already scarred with sarcoidosis), my liver, my hip and various other parts of me. The outlook was not encouraging. I thank God, the many, many people who pray for me, and all those who have worked hard and long to keep me alive — especially when I’ve found things a bit tough and haven’t been my nicest, kindest or sunniest self. I hope my experience will encourage others not to assume the worst when they receive a shattering diagnosis; and to treasure every moment of life as a gift. I know my own life could end at any minute but, as a Benedictine, I take to heart the Rule’s exhortation to ‘keep death daily before one’s eyes’, not as a threat but as an invitation to make the best of things, serving God and others as well as I can, and joyfully, too. Laus Deo.

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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On Being Oneself

The statement issued yesterday by the duke and duchess of Sussex is being picked over by the media and every Tom, Dick and Henrietta with any kind of online access. Some applaud; others deprecate. I have no particular interest in the royal family (leaping over 51 candidates with a nearer claim to the throne to ensure the Protestant succession in 1714 doesn’t make me a Jacobite though it does make me feel a little distant from the institution) but I am interested in one of the underlying questions prompted by the statement, viz. how to be oneself. It is both a profoundly moral and profoundly religious question which goes beyond individual personalities.

As a Benedictine and erstwhile medievalist, I have always felt the force of the importance of community, the group. For many, a parallel is to be found in family. The individualism we associate with the Enlightenment is really only possible in a world where we are not dependent on one another for the basics of existence — food, shelter and so on — but can obtain these things for ourselves without reference to community/family. In other words, if we can buy something, we do not have to rely on its being provided by our group. That has not been the case for most people most of the time. Indeed, if parents were not to provide for their children, the human race would have died out long ago. Some degree of mutual co-operation is essential, but the amount may be determined by our economic circumstances — which is why the rich have choices the poor can only dream of.

Benedict sees things differently, of course. He comes from the world of sixth century Rome, and his values are not primarily economic but religious. Someone who can write of the property of the monastery in terms of sacred altar vessels, as he does when addressing the cellarer, is by no means indifferent to the importance of material things, however, nor is he unaware of how they affect the well-being of both individuals and community.

The abbot is to provide everything the individual needs via the cellarer or some other official, while the monastery itself is to be equipped with everything the community is likely to need in order to sustain itself. As a corollary, there is a delicate system of checks and balances, an etiquette all are expected to observe which is meant to ensure that the community not only functions but flourishes. This includes mutual obedience, reverence for the old, kindness towards the young, consideration about when to make requests (even by the sick and cantankerous), patience, giving help when needed — and accepting that when one fails, there is a discipline to be undergone to reassert a right relationship with those who have been affected by one’s shortcomings, whether it be a false note in choir or a more serious matter. Being oneself does not mean doing anything one chooses — that, in Benedictine terms, is to be a sarabaite — but accepting the yoke of the Rule as a way of becoming what one is meant to be and freely doing all those things which once required effort (cf RB 7). It isn’t easy at first, which may be why newcomers to the monastery often have difficulty seeing how their individual quest for God, their sense of personal vocation, fits into the common endeavour of the community. We go to God together, but it takes time to realise that we become more free, more ourselves, as we go on.

This morning, as I mulled over the first Mass reading (1 John 4. 11–18), I had as an echo at the back of my mind the thought that in the Lord’s service is perfect freedom. It is in him that we find our deepest, truest identity, are most genuinely ourselves. Let us pray for all who are learning how to be themselves, especially the young; for those who feel they have made mistakes or lack courage; and for those who are baffled or hurt by the choices made by those they love. It takes most of us a lifetime to learn how to be ourselves, but we have the Lord’s assurance in the gospel that we should not be afraid (Mark 6.45–52). Let us trust him.

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The Antidote to Hate Crimes

The stabbing of five people at an orthodox Jewish rabbi’s home in New York state during Hanukkah celebrations on Saturday added one more dreadful statistic to the wave of hate crimes associated with the resurgence of antiSemitism in the West. Then came news of a gun attack in a Texas church during service-time on Sunday. No doubt we shall be told in due course who the attackers were and what their motivation was thought to be. We in the U.K. will probably allow ourselves to wonder whether the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S.A. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-50936575) has created a culture of indifference towards such violence, but we have nothing to be proud of when we consider the rise in knife crime in our own city streets. The fact is that the expression of hatred is becoming harder and harder to contain or neutralise. The kind of anger and abuse we find in social media easily translates into violent action, only we tend not to see or want to acknowledge the way in which it can affect both ourselves and others. There are no boundaries, it seems — except for some fashionable hate crimes which seem to draw a disproportionate amount of attention because endorsed by the celebrities of our day.

I was struck by the response of Mayor de Blasio to what happened in Monsey: he promised more security in Jewish areas, by which I presume he means more armed guards, and a programme of education in schools. As Rabbi Sacks sadly remarked, in a tweet published yesterday,

Antisemitism has returned within living memory of the Holocaust, and after more than half a century of programs of legislation, and education designed to ensure that it could never happen again.

Legislation and education don’t appear to have changed things, and while there are those who will say it was because a churchgoer had a gun on him that the attack in Texas was no worse than it was, some of us still find the thought of taking weapons into a place of worship highly questionable. Two thousand years since the birth of the Prince of Peace and we still have not learned that violence too often begets violence!

As 2019 races towards its close, we are faced with an ever starker choice. Do we want to be people of violence or of peace? Are we going to pass the poison on, or are we going to say, ‘No. I refuse to be part of that violence’? If our answer is ‘no’ we must be prepared for huge sacrifices. It will mean being extremely careful about how we speak or act, not in the sense of being cowardly but in the sense of being mindful how our words and deeds increase or decrease the stock of tension in the world. It may be ‘fun’ to denigrate others with our witty put-downs; it may be a relief to our feelings to disparage those with whom we disagree; it may even be a source of inner congratulation to have pointed out the wrongness of a policy or an individual’s behaviour, but we do need to think about possible consequences. It is no good lighting a touch-paper and then lamenting the fact that the building burned down. The only real antidote to hate-crimes comes from those who are not prepared to hate. Which will we choose?

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St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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Living on the Edge of Eternity

One of the more useful consequences of having an incurable or terminal illness is the way it tends to change one’s perspectives. So many of the things we tend to worry about or waste our energies on become unimportant or, at any rate, secondary. Family, friends, community, and for the religiously-minded, God’s judgement — these are what we really value and sometimes fret about in the small hours. With energy at a premium, there is none to spare for self-indulgent moaning about what others are doing or not doing. Every moment is precious because we are living on the edge of eternity.

Advent is like that, too. We are given these few short weeks to prepare for the greatest of all gifts, the coming of our Saviour, and it is easy to become complicated and anxious about them because we have a lot to do and secular society doesn’t understand why our focus is elsewhere. We have to make a conscious effort to remember that we are living on the edge of eternity: the Lord will come, and he will save us.

St Bernard famously distinguished between the three comings of Christ: in the flesh at Bethlehem, two thousand years ago; in power and glory at the end of time; and here and now, when we keep his word in our heart. However busy you must be today, take courage from what St Bernard says about this coming and the promise it contains:

Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.

Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.

If you keep the word of God in this way, it will also keep you. The Son with the Father will come to you. The great Prophet who will build the new Jerusalem will come, the one who makes all things new. This coming will fulfil what is written: As we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, we shall also bear the likeness of the heavenly man. Just as Adam’s sin spread through all mankind and took hold of all, so Christ, who created and redeemed all, will glorify all, once he takes possession of all.

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Poor Worms and Tiny Mites

I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks  — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.

The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20

As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.

I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.

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A Word for the Weary

Weariness is something we all experience from time to time. For some, it is a more or less chronic condition that goes along with being the parents of small children, illness, or caring for someone who makes huge demands on our energy and patience. Today, in the U.K., I sense a kind of collective weariness about our forthcoming General Election. People are beginning to tire of the debate, the endless accusations, the promises that don’t quite add up, the gimmicks, the shoutiness of social media. For those of us observing Advent, there is also a kind of mid-season weariness to be factored in as well. Can we really be so close to the third Sunday of Advent when we don’t seem, to ourselves at least, to have even begun? Is there a word for the weary we can all take to heart, that will provide balm for our souls and encouragement for what lies ahead?

What a gift today’s Mass readings prove to be! Isaiah 40. 25–31 comforts us with the reassurance that even the young may stumble and tire but the Lord will bear us up as on eagle’s wings. Then in Matthew 11. 28–30 we have those comforting words of Jesus himself, inviting those who labour and are overburdened to come to him and share his yoke. But there is a snag. There always is a snag. Most of us don’t recognize that we are weary or overburdened. Those who go around proclaiming how tired they are or how much they need a holiday are not usually exhausted. They are still able to register what they think and feel. Their judgement is still at work. The truly exhausted are no longer able to judge their own exhaustion but tend to go on, becoming wearier and wearier, often more and more silent or sending out cries for help that go unnoticed by others. In my experience, it is not those who can articulate their distress who tend to have the break-downs but those who can’t. Can anything or anyone reach such depths of weariness?

The conventional answer to that question is that grace can touch and transform anyone at any time. Weariness is no obstacle to God. I agree with that, of course, but I think I would want to add a small nuance. St Benedict is very eloquent about the mutual support community members are to give one another. Much of it is unspoken, rather understated, but it relies on being aware of others and their needs. To give a simple illustration, last night was wet and windy and I admit to shivering a bit. When I went to bed I discovered that someone had put a hot water bottle between my sheets — unasked, just because she noticed. Hot water bottles are a very practical response to a perceived need, but it isn’t only, or even especially, practical needs we can help with. A smile, a prayer, a little patience may be all it takes to give someone else the courage to face another day — and in helping others, we may find that we have been helped, too. Those eagle’s wings take many forms.

General Election 2019
Whenever we have an important decision to make in the monastery, we stop discussing it for twenty-four hours before voting on it in chapter. That gives us time to think and pray without being distracted. Accordingly, apart from posting our prayer intentions, we shall be abandoning social media until tomorrow so that we can reflect more deeply on the choices we and the rest of the country have to make in the Election.

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