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.
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.
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?
It is a difficult line to tread, between sharing one’s enthusiasm and parading one’s knowledge. A few months ago I was taken to task for expressing delight in some of the work being done by South American type designers. I made no comment on the suitability of the typefaces for any particular use but found myself drawn into an increasingly grumpy exchange on Twitter where my interlocutor was concerned principally with the accessibility of typefaces, especially online, if I remember correctly. At the end of the exchange, I felt as though I had been lectured well and truly and the person I’d been conversing with declared himself angry and went off for a walk to cool down. It was an example of the way in which sharing an enthusiasm can go horribly wrong if one does not take into account the possibility of its being misunderstood. I regret the misunderstanding and would love to put it right, but once one has got at cross purposes it can be very hard to put things straight. One just has to trust to God that He will deal with it and try to avoid making the same mistake in future. I have not made any comment on typefaces or printing since because I don’t want to upset people.
A similar thing can happen on other Social Media. One makes a small point or comment and someone decides to demonstrate that they know much more than one does oneself, or they expand one’s original comment as though one were completely unaware of any other aspect of the case or had intentionally left something out. My usual response is either to say ‘thank you’ or, if I have some doubts about what is said, to ignore the remark. Unfortunately, I do not always follow my own advice, and I am sure I have caused hurt and misunderstanding at times both by my own comments and by my response to other people’s comments. What can one do in such a situation?
I think there are only two possible responses: a simple ‘sorry’, without, please note, going over the rights and wrongs of the case again. That rarely leads to better understanding. ‘Falling out of faithful friends/Renewing is of love’ perhaps, but one has to be good friends to start with. In any case, I am not suggesting that one should avoid expressing one’s opinions or sharing one’s enthusiasms. I think it is the way we do so that needs a little thought. The second response is more humbling but ultimately a way of gaining deeper insight: to ask oneself why one made the comment in the first place. Was one really sharing an enthusiasm or bolstering one’s own ego by parading one’s knowledge? My own conscience is far from clear on that question. How about you?
One of the disadvantages of being a nun is that many people think there are a number of questions on which one should not express any opinion. It is acceptable to be against injustice, poverty, war and disease, of course — and to say so quite vigorously to anyone who will listen. Among Catholics it is acceptable to be pro-life, though not all would agree that to be pro-life means being against the death penalty or having reservations about the use of military force in certain situations. But to have opinions about politics or economics or the ethics and purposes of business or science, that is a much more questionable proposition. Why should that be so? I agree, for example, that it would be wrong for me to engage in party politics, but does my being a nun mean I should forget everything I ever learned about the world beyond the cloister or forfeit any right to have an opinion because I’m no longer actively involved in business and am definitely not a scientist? I certainly can’t say I’m no longer involved in politics. I have a vote, and I use it. Similarly, the monastery needs goods and services to function, and that involves us in making decisions about the use of resources and the ethics of the decisions we make. And as readers will know, I take a close interest in some scientific questions because they have a direct bearing on my own health.
How far is a politician’s personal morality to be taken into account when assessing his/her fitness for office? Does it matter if a politician lies or makes promises that cannot be fulfilled? If I say, for example, that I find both Mr Trump’s and Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth somewhat curious, am I overstepping a limit or simply voicing what many others think? Either way, I am expressing an opinion. I ought not to do so lightly or without taking into account the possible consequences, knowing that it would be wrong to harm someone’s reputation. If I argue that making money is not the sole objective of business, am I saying anything very extraordinary? I don’t think so, because I believe that ethical questions are not abstract but affect us all very deeply. In the same way, scientific advances often run ahead of our ability to think about them critically. It is easy to tie ourselves up in knots, especially if we know that we have an imperfect grasp of facts or that the conclusions we come to may be unwelcome.
Take, for example, my question about the ethics and purposes of business. Most people would say that it is wrong to mislead or make false claims while recognizing that a whole industry (advertising) has been built up on the premiss that one can enhance the value of a product by presenting it to the public in the most flattering light. Unfortunately, that may mean ‘massaging the truth’, which is where it becomes a little more complicated. What about a business’s end purpose? Isn’t that to make money for its owners, the shareholders, and those who participate in its activities, the workers? Yes and no. If that were the sole purpose of business, it surely would not matter what a business did. Oughtn’t business in some way to contribute to the common good, and the way in which it does so ought to be consistent with that good? Given the number of companies scrambling to ensure that they have a greener footprint than they did ten years ago, that seems to be a message that has got through. But who decides these things or enables businesses to make ethical decisions?
With that question, I think we come to the heart of the matter. Ethics committees are only as effective as the people who constitute them. In recent years we have encountered a number of difficult cases in the world of science, where individuals have undertaken experiments because they could, not because there was an ethical argument for doing so. Many of us haven’t even begun to think about the kind of questions that the advance of A.I. will pose, but we can’t close our eyes to the fact that we do need to think about them. Whether we are Aristotelians, Kantians, Utilitarians or whatever, both as individuals and as a society, we need to consider how our personal values affect our existence, how we arrive at ethical decisions and the part those decisions play in both our present and future. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from that process — not even annoying nuns like me.
I am sometimes tempted to think that the reputation of today’s saint, St Peter Chrysologus (‘Golden-Tongued’), is helped by the fact that much of his writing has been lost. We have only a few of his sermons, none of which demonstrates his fabled eloquence — or at least not to me, who once had to translate a few of them.
I was thinking about this as I did my usual swift survey of social media and came up against something I have noticed many times before but never thought of mentioning on this blog: the carelessness with which we write and, in particular, the way in which it is thought acceptable to denigrate women and girls. Kind and educated people seem to think it unobjectionable to use swear words as adjectives and regularly refer to women and girls whose views they disagree with as bitches or worse. Why is that? Have we really all undergone a collective impoverishment of vocabulary, or has aggression become our normal response to anything or anyone we dislike, especially, but certainly not exclusively, if female?*
Some of us smiled at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide, with its masculine focus, its determined refusal to acknowledge that language changes over time, and its misunderstanding of some punctuation practices; but no-one, I think, would ever accuse him of being deliberately rude. I find it hard to imagine him referring to an opponent as a bitch, for example, or using a derogatory term about those of a different ethnicity; and that, I think, matters.
The language we use says a great deal about us as individuals but it also affects those who hear us. If we have got into the habit of using profanities or referring to other people with the language of the farmyard, we have done more than merely coarsened our speech. We have coarsened our thought, too. In a world where violence is becoming more and more widespread, we cannot shrug off responsibility for the effect our own words and attitudes have on others. St Benedict was acutely aware of this and again and again urges restraint, thoughtfulness, and consideration for others. I think he was on to something.
*I’ve singled this out because I’m probably more aware of it, being a woman myself, and because there is no male equivalent. Calling someone a dog or a cur doesn’t have the same derogatory overtones.
Here in the monastery we keep the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus as a feast of hospitality and friendship — exactly what one would expect given the emphasis St Benedict places on hospitality in the Rule. Western society, however, is becoming less and less enthusiastic about welcoming the stranger or honouring the guest while friendship is often devalued to mean little more than social media ‘likes’. Our ‘hospitality suites’ are commercial enterprises, where every canapé or cup of coffee is minutely costed; our governments are more interested in immigration quotas and building barriers of one kind or another than in sharing what we have with the less fortunate.
In the British Isles we have a long history of welcoming others. We have been called a mongrel race because of all the different nationalities and ethnicities that go into our make-up. But I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that among many the idea of welcoming others is under renewed strain. Where jobs and housing are at stake, a narrower view sometimes prevails: keep the others out! Those who oppose such a view are dismissed as namby-pamby liberals whose comfortable existences are untouched by the hardships and uncertainties of the rest. The rise of the EDL and other far-right groups adds fuel to the fire, for they depend on exaggerating differences, on creating a sense of tension and hostility, of grievance.
I’d like to suggest that it is time we all thought again about the hospitality shown by the family of Bethany. There was Martha, determined to give as good a dinner to everyone as she could — which meant hard work to supply an obvious material need. There was Mary, listening to Jesus and learning from him — paying attention to what the guest considered important, not seeking to impose her own ideas. There, too, was Lazarus, who was Jesus’ friend — so dear a friend that when he died, Jesus wept. All three elements are important in the welcome we give others but the most important is surely friendship. Unless and until we have learned to be friends with one another, we have not begun to be truly hospitable. Learning to be friends takes effort and sacrifice as well as delight in the discovery of what each brings to the friendship. It does not often happen all at once or without an openness that risks being abused. Something to ponder there, perhaps.
During the hot weather I have done my best to be circumspect. Unlike Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, I haven’t been able to take myself off to a cool corner and ‘aestivate’, but I have tried to avoid obvious conflict zones like Twitter or Facebook. In this I have been enormously helped by some hackers who decided to try to bring down this site. Two lost days when my attention had to be focused on making sure that nothing had slipped through the net (all our sites are professionally monitored 24/7 to make sure they are safe for you to use, but accidents do happen); two lost days when I was unable to get done any of the things I had hoped to do — a minor irritation, if ever there was one!
What do we do about these minor irritations? If some of those who comment on social media are to be believed, we should adopt an attitude of perfect acceptance, allowing nothing to ruffle the surface of our thoughts and feelings. I call that the Teflon Response and am very glad it isn’t a particularly Christian or Benedictine response. Benedict, you may recall, allowed for ‘justifiable grumbling’ in certain cases, and even Jesus cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit (cf Mark 11.12). The point is, being human doesn’t mean pretending to be an angel; it means being honest but also recognizing that there must be proportion and restraint in the way we express our negative feelings. Just because we are hot and bothered doesn’t mean we have the right to bother others with our hot tempers or treat them with contempt.
The heatwave may be over for now, but minor irritations are sure to come thick and fast as summer wears on. Most of us will have one or two little tricks we use to try to stem an immediate angry response, such as counting to ten or walking from one side of a room to another or uttering a short silent prayer. Failures, alas, are bound to occur. If they do, the best course is to turn matters over to God. Choose the right time to apologize if you can but beware of self-justification or going over what caused the misunderstanding in the first place. That will only stoke up the fire, so to say. God knows how to bring about peace better than we do. We have only to ask and to wait. After all, so many of our minor irritations stem from the fact that we want to be in control and dictate the timetable for, or the unfolding of, events or other people’s behaviour— but aren’t and can’t.
In recent months, as my eyesight decreased and I went around in a frustrating blur of light and shade, I became more and more aware of sound. Listening to the Italian Quartet playing Mozart or the clear fluting of a local blackbird could almost reduce me to tears. Almost, but not quite. What did cause a moist eye was hearing hate-filled speech on the radio: cruel voices clamouring for vengeance and calling it ‘justice’ instead; others making rash accusations and false promises, denigrating, stirring up hatred, doing the devil’s work with unholy glee. Being unable to see made it so much worse. There was no opportunity to register facial expressions or those little details that sometimes make the actual words less ugly — the pinched face, the obvious poverty of the surroundings, even the politician’s crumpled suit or ashen countenance. The problem was, how to deal with it all without being drawn into a reactive anger myself.
The conventional, pious answer would no doubt be to pray and do what one can to present an alternative view — the prayerful activism of the committed Christian. I have no problem with that, but it wasn’t the way that suggested itself to me. As a Benedictine, my way was to go deeper and deeper into silence, letting the anger and turmoil ebb away until it was, practically speaking, noiseless and unable to do harm.
To choose silence and stick to it isn’t easy. It means checking one’s own first angry response, the desire to give a smart answer or argue a case one is convinced one will win because, of course, one is right. It means acknowledging one’s own helplessness in the face of something that seems very powerful and hostile. Silence does not immediately soothe. In fact, initially it makes everything much more painful. One feels more, not less. Only with time does one begin to see why silence is important. It allows God into a situation which otherwise is full of human noise and discord. More than that, it allows God to be God in that situation, not our idea of God, which can be misleading and dangerous.
At present there is a lot of violence and anger informing our political discourse, our online activities, even, alas, our social relations. Some will respond with the kind of activism I mentioned above. Others may find more helpful the practice of silence — not the easy, empty silence of the cowardly but the more challenging silence that finds its origin and fulfilment in God.
I have never really understood why Human Beans think PBGVs (Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen) know all about laziness. The first sniff of a rabbit at five thousand paces and we are away. The merest chink of kibble in the food bowl or covert unwrapping of a morsel of cheese and we are by our Human Bean’s side. Even here, where we stretch out in the sunshine of God’s presence, waiting for Them to turn up at the Pearly Gates and make our heaven complete, every nerve is alive, on the alert for everything happening down below; and I must say, recent events have made me realise what silly-billies most of you Human Beans are.
After much thinking, I have come to the conclusion that it is because you are ever so slightly . . . lazy. You want instant solutions that require no effort or exertion on your part. If you have a ‘comfortable shape’, you want to attain your ideal body shape in a matter of days, without the pain of changing your diet or exercise regime. You believe that all your problems will be solved if you can rid yourselves of ‘difficult people’ — the ones you don’t like or fail to understand. You can ridicule them as ‘pompous fools’ or tell them to ‘go back where they came from’ or simply behave so brutally that they will want to get away from you as fast as their little legs will carry them. (In the case of PBGVs, whose legs are indeed little, that is very fast indeed: try saying ‘Vet!’ or ‘Time for your grooming!’ if you don’t believe me.) Then there are those Human Beans who want others to do all the work for them. I call them Instant Gratification Grabbers or IGGs for short. Rather than read a book or even scan a web page, they will send someone an email asking for all the information they require on a certain subject and be grumpy and grudging if they don’t get an instant reply. I have sometimes thought about taking such Human Beans hunting with me, but it wouldn’t be much fun. You need patience to catch rabbits, and lots of persistence, but those who want instant answers wouldn’t know about that.
The big problem, as I see it, is with Human Beans who want Instant God. They want God to be created in their own image and likeness, doing their bidding whenever they deign to notice him. So, they are happy to ignore him most of the time, but the moment something nasty or difficult occurs, there he must be, the kind of God they want at that minute, all trendy and treacle-y, endorsing the latest fashionable fad without so much as a Commandment or Gospel precept to trouble or challenge them. They don’t like the effort that goes into preparing for prayer, so they opt for short-cuts of their own devising, and as for a life of virtue! Well, that is but a fetter on a free spirit, is it not? Even worse, in my view, if they aren’t up to this themselves, they spend their lives condemning those who are. Laziness isn’t very nice, but condemning others for their laziness is even less nice (and I can only do it because I am Beyond and love everyone because I have fulfilled my True Nature as a PBGV and am writing this as a kind of latterday Sermo Canis ad Anglos).
So, my friends, may I urge you to take stock a little and see whether you have fallen into the trap of wanting Instant God? Have you become a little lazy in your thinking and doing, a little lazy in your preparations for prayer? You don’t need to become complicated about it. Take a lesson from me and my pals up here. I mentioned the way we stretch out in the sunshine of God’s love. That’s all there is to it, really. No one close to Him wants to be anything other than His joy and delight. Yes, it takes effort, but never was effort more richly rewarded. The results are not instant but they last for eternity. 🙂
Note from Digitalnun I’m very grateful to Bro Duncan PBGV for blogging today. I’m delighted to say I can now see with one eye but I have a mountain of admin to catch up with and a daunting amount of correspondence, too. Thank you for your prayers and good wishes, all of which have been much appreciated.