Is Ecumenism No Longer a Burning Issue?

Sometimes, I think the fire has gone out of our quest for Christian unity. To some people, it will always matter a great deal. The married couples who long to share Communion together, for example, or those who have been involved in ecumenical endeavours all their adult lives, will probably be more urgent in their desire to see some form of unity given official recognition than those who are happy being Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Free Church or whatever and make a point of concentrating on the commonalities of our Christian faith rather than what divides us. On the whole, I agree; what already unites us is amazing. Our baptism, our sharing of the scriptures, our life in Christ — these are not small things. But being an English Catholic does make one acutely aware of some of the differences and I am wondering whether we need to reconsider them if we are to advance towards a greater degree of unity than we enjoy at present.

An English Catholic Perspective
In England, Catholics are a minority; some still suggest that there is an element of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about us, or that we are socially and educationally an inferior breed. Partly that is a consequence of the Church of England being the Established Church and the indigenous Catholic population having been swelled over the years by successive waves of immigration from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Africa, India and so on. I think it also reflects the fact that, from an English perspective, ecumenism is predominantly about Anglicans and Catholics or Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists, whereas Rome’s eyes are focused on Orthodoxy. It is easy to conclude that because the Churches in England use many of the same words and ceremonies, we believe the same things. The fact is, we don’t; but we aren’t always honest about it. I was thinking this morning of one dear friend — an Anglican priest — who will tell you quite openly that theologically we are sometimes miles apart, but that does not get in the way of our friendship or our essential unity in Christ. It does, however, mean that there must be a constant effort to understand the other’s position. That requires honesty and trust and the willingness to give the process time. Both she and I have learned a lot from each other over the years, and I think that is how ecumenism grows: through seeking understanding, mutual trust, and the conviction that it is worthwhile.

Parallels Between Politics and Ecumenism
I think there is an interesting parallel between what has been happening in the U.S.A. recently and the way we often approach ecumenism. Some Catholics believe the best way of promoting pro-life policies in the U.S.A. is to condemn President Biden and demand his excommunication, to force him to change his public policy on abortion. As far as I can see, the same Catholics are not always so vocal about the need to convince others of the truth of their position, that all life is sacred, nor are they always so ready to provide the material and emotional support people need if they are to reject abortion (I write this as someone opposed to abortion and, before I became a nun, deeply involved in the Life movement). We never convince by condemning. We never spread the gospel by hatred. We can never force people to believe. Just as I think a pro-life stance requires thinking deeply, often painfully, about capital punishment, healthcare, gun control, social welfare and the like, so I think Christian unity can only be achieved if we are ready to have our own truths examined and to approach others in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. By that I don’t mean some theatrical apology for the sins of our fathers in which we had no share but forgiveness for the little pockets of resentment and distrust most of us will uncover in ourselves if we look hard enough. It is only when we can be honest about how our own beliefs have been shaped that we can get down to the serious business of exploring what we believe and why, of being truly open to the other. Ecumenism doesn’t mean watering down: it means taking fire of the Holy Spirit. And that can lead to some surprising upsets and transformations.

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The Law is an Ass

A few of you know how I have longed to be able to quote that phrase legitimately, and now I can — in part. When Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court Judge, told a stage 4 cancer patient that her life was ‘less valuable’ than that of others, I assume he was thinking of legal remedy: younger lives are valued more highly. Unfortunately for him, his remark, uttered in the context of a debate about lockdown restrictions (which he is known to oppose), gave the impression that he was talking more generally. Is one life more valuable than another? That is a very slippery slope down which to travel but there are many racing along it. The old, the sick, those born with physical or mental disabilities, people society rejects as dangerous or beyond redemption, we have cures for all these: abortion, euthanasia, judicial execution and some questionable forms of ‘drug therapy’ in between.

How refreshing, therefore, to begin re-reading chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict today, on The Tools of Good Works. The first tool Benedict lists is to love God. The second is not to commit murder (he knew his monks!). Today’s section ends with ‘To prefer nothing whatever to the love of Christ.’ I don’t think any of us could read that passage and come away with anything other than the conviction that whatever God has made is good and beautiful, even if their goodness and beauty is hidden from us. We know we shall never look at anyone God has not first looked at with love. Our human law may be an ass at times but the law of God cuts straight through to what really matters, our existence in Christ. You are valuable. I am valuable. And the scale on which our value is to be measured is not one we can compute.

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Moral Health in Time of COVID

Sixteenth-century Korean Tea Bowl, showing Kitsugi repair using gold. Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Photo by Daderot

Physical and Mental Health in Time of COVID

A lot has been written about physical and mental health and the impact COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have had, and continue to have, on both. We are too deeply involved in the present crisis to be able to see with any real clarity the long-term consequences, but there is a general awareness that the prospects for many people have worsened. That is not just because delayed or cancelled treatment leads to poorer health outcomes but because lockdown, for example, has also meant poorer living conditions, loneliness and emotional stress, not to mention the mounting evidence of increased domestic violence and abuse. Add to that concerns over the impact on children and young people of the effect on their education and it is easy to see why many are worried about the future physical and mental health of the nation.

Spiritual Health in Time of COVID

Churches and other religious organizations have done their best to minister to the spiritual needs of their members. Some, like the Irish priest who devised an imaginative and truly pastoral response to the question of First Holy Communion, or the lay groups that have maintained a sense of community by keeping in touch via online and telephone meetings, have shown real creativity in their response to a complex situation. Others have settled for live-streamed worship, podcasts, vodcasts and experimented with other ways of reaching out to people as time, energy and resources permitted.

Moral Health in Time of COVID

What I am not sure many people, other than a few philosophers, have been thinking about is what I call our moral health. By that I mean how we, both as individuals and as a society, act ethically and with moral purpose in a confused and confusing situation such as a pandemic, and the consequences for us and our sense of right or wrong conduct. We have all read of instances of people behaving with courage and generosity, looking out for others and performing acts of unexpected kindness. We have also read of people behaving selfishly and putting others at risk. What are the principles at work here, and how far is the Government, the Churches or any other body responsible for setting the tone? Is the moral health of the nation to be identified with that of individuals, or does it have a larger existence?

Those familiar with Catholic Social Teaching will be able to guess to which side of that last question I myself lean. It does concern me when people say, ‘When everything gets back to normal, then I’ll do so and so.’ The situation we find ourselves in may not be familiar, but it is the current ‘normal’ and therefore precisely the one in which we must act as moral beings. How we apply injunctions to be truthful, charitable, generous, is therefore a matter of moment. I have a hunch that the privatisation of our lives — working from home, not travelling so much and having far less social contact with others outside our chosen spheres — has meant that most of us are living in a moral space less challenged by difference than it used to be. Here in this part of Herefordshire, for example, we rarely meet anyone who isn’t white or from a rural, probably local, background. I don’t think I’ve met anyone here who isn’t either a Christian of some sort or an agnostic or atheist. Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs belong to the wider world I used to know — they are not on my doorstep. Social media used to provide another window on the world, so to say, but recent changes in content moderation make one question whether that, too, is going to become even more of an ‘echo chamber’ for those of similar mind than it was. All this affects us, often more than we realise.

To take a concrete example. The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins on Monday, will present us with unique challenges this year. There can be no dutiful ‘shared worship’ of the type we held in the past, which let us off the hook of really engaging with one another. Our prayer and work for unity must be real, and working out how to do that is going to test all of us. We shall have to make choices, some of which will be hard; but they must be moral choices, that is to say, proceeding from principle and conviction. Some look to technology to provide a solution, perhaps forgetting that technology is a means to an end. How we use it matters. Why we use it matters. But it is what we actually do with it that matters most of all.

Hope for our Moral Health

I am hopeful that our experience of pandemic will enable us to reflect on what we really value. I have said before that I hope it will lead to a deeper experience of God in prayer, to a fresh appreciation of family, friends and community and the many good things we encounter in our daily lives, plus a more profound sense of the interconnectedness of the world in which we live. I hope it will also lead to a strengthening of our moral health, our concern for one another, and our delight in trying to make things better for everyone. The world is not broken as it once was, but we may have failed to see how beautifully it has been repaired by the coming of Christ and the part we have to play in keeping its bonds strong. We tend to think of ourselves as clay, being moulded by the Potter. Maybe, just this once, we could identify with Christ himself, with that little line of gold purified in the furnace of experience and suffering but helping to hold together the vessel God has created, the world and everyone in it.

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Assuming Goodwill in Others

Today we begin re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel. I’ve often commented on it before but this morning I was struck by the fact that Benedict assumes goodwill in others. It seems obvious. Day to day, the monastic enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the community members. How else could it function? But when it comes to policy, to decisions about buildings or work or, whisper it gently, liturgy, there is more scope for less disinterested behaviour — I write as the survivor of many a chapter meeting where I had the feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed.

It is the apparently neutral ground, where we talk about one thing but seem to be busy about another, that makes the assumption of goodwill in others sometimes difficult. The bitter devisions in U.S.A. politics, the never-ending instances of incompetence and cronyism nearer home, are all rightly the subject of discussion and condemnation, but I wonder whether the situation would be as grave as it is were we able to assume goodwill in others.

Why are we reluctant to assume such goodwill? Is it that we fear to be thought naif? Or do we say, a little cynically, that we have been caught out before? As an outsider, I have found the presidential election in the U.S.A. and the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats baffling at times, never more so than when considering the behaviour of President Trump himself. An important element seems to be a reluctance to grant that it is possible for people to act in good faith in ways that we ourselves would not. That applies not just to politics but to most other areas of life as well.

Benedict reminds us that if we are to benefit from the wisdom and insights of others, we must be prepared to listen. Good ideas, good advice, can come from the most unlikely quarters. We may not like what we hear at first, so, like the abbot, we must think things over, give the matter time. But we start with that simplest and most difficult of acts: assuming goodwill in others.

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Playing the Blame Game

A short post today, by way of contrast with yesterday’s. I have always had a soft spot for the saint we commemorate today, Hilary of Poitiers. His very name suggests cheerfulness, and though I daresay the Arians who suffered from his attempts to put them right were unenthusiastic about his efforts, Hilary has continued to be a beacon of sound learning and encouragement in the Church to the present. I think he was probably the best Latin writer of the fourth century (before Ambrose, that is). His daughter Abra became a sanctimonialis and is commonly regarded as a saint, while he did much to encourage Martin of Tours in his monastic enterprise; so, I owe him my gratitude. He endured exile graciously for the most part, and I can’t think of any instance of his blaming others for the difficulties he himself experienced. How different that is from our own times, when someone always has to be held responsible and made to pay — often literally.

Unfortunately, a desire for vengeance — which is what playing the blame game really is — does not always serve the purposes of justice. If one has not oneself suffered the injury another has experienced, it can seem wrong or unsympathetic to argue that the injured party should not be crying out for compensation of some kind. But perhaps that is what we have to do sometimes. Not every wrong can be put right by the payment of a wergild or the award of a sum of money, especially if demanded from those who have no connection with the original wrong-doing. I was thinking about this in the context of a number of recent claims against NHS hospital trusts and asking myself whether we have too easily assumed negligence when in actual fact a mistake has been made. We are all fallible, and I pity those who have to try to sort out the genuinely blame-worthy from those who are not. May they have the clarity of mind and warmth of heart of St Hilary himself.

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Lockdown 2.0

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

As we enter another COVID-19 lockdown in England and Scotland, we can feel the anguish and despair many are experiencing. In vain do we tell ourselves that there is hope on the horizon — if vaccines prove effective against the new strains of the virus now circulating. There is still that underlying fear of the unknown, that sense of the familiar being gone for ever. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that this is Lockdown 2.0. We learned a lot from our previous experience that we can now put into practice. We shall cope better. That is not just ‘pi in the sky’ assurance. It is a fact. We have learned a great deal about ourselves, our communities, our strengths and weaknesses, and have discovered a resilience and creativity we probably never knew we had.

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. By this stage of their journey the Magi must have been tired, dusty, wondering whether they should give up; but they didn’t. They went on, following the star. God was with them, as he is with us. God is with us. That is the message of Christmas — and of lockdown — for today and always.

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Tired of Life?

Over the Christmas period many people have contacted the monastery for different reasons. Some have wanted help with research; others have needed somewhere to stay; others again have asked prayers for themselves or those dear to them. Among those asking for prayer, the sick and those weary of life stand out. I can sympathize with them because I am myself tired of being ill, of having to struggle with simple, everyday tasks and the lowness of spirits that cancer and its treatment (or non-treatment) sometimes brings. But I do not think I would say I am tired of life. In that I am very fortunate. There are thousands of people who are having difficulty coping with the isolation and loneliness that COVID-19 brings. Not all experience clinical depression but many have heightened anxiety or are otherwise struggling. Today would be a good day for not putting off that telephone call, sending that email or somehow making contact with someone who may be in need. We advance the Kingdom by little steps — just as we prove our love in little things.

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Good Zeal at the Turn of the Year

I love the fact that just before we come to the end of the secular year we re-read chapter 72 of the Rule of St Benedict which describes the good zeal we, his followers, ought to have. I find it makes an excellent way of looking back over the past year and examining not just my own conscience (although that is principally what I try to do) but also scrutinising how we, as a community, have lived up to our calling. For the first time I’ve been tempted to add an assessment of how the State has acted because I don’t believe any of us with the right to vote can distance ourselves from what is done in our name, however much we may dislike or wish to repudiate what we regard as wrong, misguided or dishonourable. I say nothing of the Church because I long ago learned that questioning anything as a woman, especially a nun, often results in slap-downs or censures and I don’t want to over-react as I know I sometimes do.

Here is what St Benedict says about zeal, or you can listen to another translation in today’s podcast of the Rule:
1 Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, 2 so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. 3 This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: 4 They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Romans 12.10), 5 supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, 6 and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. 7 No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. 8 To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; 9 to God, loving fear; 10 to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. 11 Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, 12 and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Note that Benedict begins with bad zeal which separates from God and leads to hell. Most of us are familiar with that kind of zeal. We see it often enough in those who take a close interest in other people’s sins or use social media to express their rage or disgust. I fear we may see it in ourselves, too, if we dare to look at ourselves properly. We can pursue an argument in a way that is really pursuit of a person; we can use the gifts God has given us to belittle or discomfort another; we can even assume the high moral ground as a way of insulating ourselves from the consequences of our own actions. Are you beginning to feel uncomfortable? I hope you are, because I am.

So let’s move on quickly to the characteristics of good zeal. For most of us the sins of omission far outnumber the acts of deliberate cruelty or wickedness, and reading through Benedict’s list of the qualities we need to exercise, I am acutely conscious of missed opportunities. As an individual, as a community, as a country, I know we can do better than we have. Fervent love in the practice of virtue, respect, patience, doing what is better for another, being supportive, these are generous qualities, they are also civilized and humane qualities. Looking back on the past year I can see both where we have succeeded and where we have failed. I am no great fan of New Year resolutions, but I’ll be making a general intention of trying to do better, and I know the community will, too. It is, after all, the commitment we renew every day with our vow of conversatio morum. I take heart from the fact that this short chapter of the Rule ends with a prayer. We can do better; we can be better. It is, in the end, a joint enterprise that leads us to heaven. Thank God for that.

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CHRISTMAS DAY 2020

Crib at Howton Grove Priory
Crib at Howton Grove Priory

Go into any monastery today and I wager you’ll find monks or nuns in various stages of happy exhaustion. The liturgies of the great feasts don’t just happen, any more than the festive meals in the refectory. Christmas requires effort, no matter how low-key our celebration, and we have twelve days of it in which to go on making more effort, not to mention the last ‘look-back’ at Candlemas. I’m sure most lay people can identify with this in their own way. But there is one aspect of the monastic Christmas that impresses me more and more as each year passes and it may not be so easily found outside the cloister: silence. Yes, we sing our hearts out in choir; and yes, we do relax the rule of silence on Christmas Day itself to engage in friendly community chatter, but in between times there is a rich, joyful silence that is very far from being emptiness. When the Divine Word takes flesh and appears among us, our human words fall away. Only silence can begin to comprehend the mystery. It forces us to our knees, loses us in wonder and adoration. Christ is born on earth and we dance with the angels for very joy (St Basil). If we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance inwardly. Rejoice!

CHRISTMAS BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL

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On Being a BusyBody

A member of the community has opined (such a glorious word, ‘opined’) that it is about time I wrote a serious, deeply theological or liturgical post rather than regaling readers with what she clearly regards as mere flim-flams. How dare she, I thought, what a busybody! Of course, most of us love giving others the benefit of our opinion, and provided we do it kindly or wittily or even flatteringly as in the case of my dear sister in Christ, who ended her remarks with ‘You’re not as stupid as you look!’, who could possibly take umbrage? Whether the subject be politics, COVID-19, the Church, or anything else of current moment, we are happy to think we have insights others don’t and are generous in our sharing. Sometimes we can even make our prayer a sustained exercise in telling God how to order things better.

Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 45.6-8, 18, 21-2, is perfect for busybodies like us. It reminds us just how small we are in the scheme of things, how imperfect is our grasp of anything. That is not to crush us with a sense of our own insignificance, far from it. It is to allow us to see more clearly the true wonder of our own being and the wonder of God. Salvation comes from God alone, the creator of all that is, and what a God he is!

I am the Lord, unrivalled: there is no other god besides me.  
A God of integrity and a saviour: there is none apart from me.  
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth,  
for I am God unrivalled.

There is a lot to think about in that passage, but one word stands out for me. We hear it again and again during Advent: integrity. There is something about integrity that matters to God and should matter to us. At the root of the word is the idea of wholeness, consistency, and in Isaiah it is closely allied to honesty and salvation. In fact, I think we could claim that integrity provides us with an Advent programme in itself, making it possible for us to receive the gift of salvation offered to us in the Incarnation. People of integrity do not often lead easy lives themselves, but they make life easier for others. We know they can be trusted, that their opinion and advice is worth having, but there are no short-cuts to becoming a person of integrity ourselves. It means hard work, renunciation of self in both large and little things, and perseverance. The busybody flits from one thing or person to another, delighting in the sunshine of attention and sometimes upset; the man or woman of integrity is more like a quiet river, moving steadily but unshowily to the journey’s end. I know which I’d rather be, don’t you?

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