The Very Young and Very Old (Again)

Yesterday we re-read St Benedict’s challenging chapter on the care of the sick; today he gives us just a few sentences about the very young and the very old, most of which concern food and the times of meals (RB 37). I think that demonstrates his first-hand experience of community life and his sympathy with those who might easily be overlooked as ‘too demanding’. Most of us can remember what it was like to be really, really hungry as youngsters, when we could devour huge plates of food and remain whiplash thin. Some of us may have reached the age when the appetite has to be tempted, or when a delay in regular meal-times causes all kinds of discomfort. Either way, we know that something as basic as food profoundly affects our sense of well-being.

I think RB 37 is a good reminder that we can be too focused on our own agenda to be truly mindful of the needs of others who may be less able than we are to express their views or ask for help. Benedict is ever the realist. Human nature inclines us to be sympathetic to both old and young, he says, but the Rule must still make provision for them (RB 37.1). He knows we can fail those who are weak and defenceless because we don’t really ‘see’ them. This morning I re-read an oldish (July 2018) article in the Independent about the numbers of terminally ill people who are homeless and dying on our streets. We don’t ‘see’ them, either. As our M.P.s and others debate the proposed Brexit exit deal Theresa May has announced, we need to recall that, in the end, abstractions like sovereignty must be enfleshed in the lives of real people; that, whatever decisions are ultimately made, serving the common good may require sacrifice as well as gain. Both young and old have their own special vulnerabilities. A civilized society will not ignore them

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That Monday Morning Feeling Again

The hum of the washing machine and a slightly soapy smell in the air are a reminder that it is Monday again. It’s a very ordinary Monday, too (St Josaphat is a ‘collect only’ memoria for us). All I have to look forward to are a number of forms to be filled in for the bank, the Charity Commission. and other worthy bodies. Even the dog has decided to have a duvet day by the look of him. So, do I launch upon the world my own version of The Inspirational Quote to make your Monday morning feel even worse than it probably does already? Certainly not!

The point about ordinariness is that it is ordinary. commonplace. Most people’s lives are filled with routine, the unspectacular quotidian, and it is no different in a monastery. We do the same things day after day, sometimes barely registering that we have done them, and only seem to appreciate their value when  we are unable to do them for some reason. But St Benedict is insistent that it is the ordinary that will make us holy, gradually fashioning us into the icons of Christ we are meant to become. It is no accident that we know next to nothing of Christ’s early life, the years of quiet obscurity in Nazareth, but their very ordinariness prepared him for his public ministry, suffering and death. For a Christian, following in his footsteps, all life is a preparation for death and the entry into fullness of life — even those apparently endless Monday mornings. Treasure them.

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Remembering and Praying

Throughout the year a vast tide of blood-red poppies has been sweeping over the land. They cascade from church pulpits and castle battlements, flow down lamp posts and spill out into municipal parks and private gardens. Poppies are tied to radiator grilles, pinned to buttonholes, printed on scarves and dangle from pet collars. Silhouettes of World War I Tommies stand in graveyards, surprise us on street corners, burst out of hedges and break the skyline as no real soldier ever would. On Sunday, in a huge act of collective remembrance, Britain will mark the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day with memorial services and parades, a two-minute silence and the plangent tones of a bugler sounding the Last Post. It will not be without controversy, however; for, as each year passes, and the personal connection some of us have with those who died in World War I or II begins to fade, the whole idea of remembering becomes more problematic, particularly as we do not seem to agree about what we are remembering or why.

Problems with the idea of remembrance
For me, as a Catholic, the act of remembering is relatively uncomplicated because it is always associated with prayer. During the two-minute silence, I pray for the dead — all the dead who have died in war, whatever side they were on — and I ask God to teach us how to live at peace with one another. A friend once challenged me on this, asking how I could pray for those who have been guilty of war crimes. My reply was simple: prayer isn’t a reward for being good (i.e. being on the ‘right’ or winning side); it isn’t some kind of Good Conduct medal we bestow on those we deem worthy of it; it is an acknowledgement that sin and suffering have scarred the face of humanity and we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. This kind of prayer is a prayer of repentance, a plea for help in which gratitude and regret are equally mixed; and it is our privilege to offer it for the dead and for ourselves.

But what of those who don’t or can’t pray, for whom Remembrance Sunday has nationalistic, even jingoistic, overtones, or who see the commemoration as an exercise in collective nostalgia, shot through with sentimentality? Is there a point at which we should stop remembering, or is the problem more to do with how we remember? There is something to be said for both. To my mind, a centenary marks a natural division. Those who fought in the First World War are now all dead, as are those who took part in the earlier conflicts we now forget or leave to the historians to recall. How we remember is more complicated. We do not simply pray for the dead on Remembrance Sunday, we surround the day with the trappings of Establishment and nationalism or kidnap it to advance an agenda of our own about Brexit, race or empire, to name just a few. I question whether that is what those who took part in World War I or World War II would wish us to do — or even understand.

How older generations looked at war
For instance, I have been pondering how my parents and grandparents thought about war. The men went off to fight because it was their duty, so they said, but they had no personal animosity or grievance against those with whom they fought. They did not hate; they did not think themselves superior; they believed, most of the time, in the cause for which they fought, but they weren’t blind to the contradictions inherent in it. One of my grandfathers was blown up in an early British tank, survived that, then spent the rest of the war as a P.o.W. in a Silesian salt mine. He considered himself lucky, despite what it did to his health. My other grandfather served in what later became the Fleet Air Arm, saw some terrible action but also survived, then lost two of his sons in World War II. Yet he bore his losses silently. I never heard him speak a single word against anyone. War wasn’t glorious, it was brutal; building the peace was what mattered, and that was the task he and others of his generation took to heart.

I can remember my father talking about his experience at El Alamein and other battlefronts, always hoping the world would never again be plunged into total war, always sad that there had been so much loss of life on both sides, so many civilians killed, so much beauty and history destroyed. I also remember the father of a friend, who had himself been imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, rapping on the dinner table and saying that the lesson we had to learn from history was not what Nazis could do to Jews but what human beings can do to one another. I don’t think they were unique, but how I wish we heard their voices now rather than the highly selective voices of the media and popular historians!

Has our focus changed?
Are we in danger of losing the kind of historical perspective I have tried to sketch and substituting something less truthful, precisely because those voices have fallen silent? During the course of this year I have begun to feel that we are. The poppies and the silhouettes and other artworks are fine, but perhaps they change the focus of what we are supposedly commemorating and allow other elements to creep in. War as spectacle, war as the voicing of views and attitudes that have more to do with us than with the fallen, makes me uneasy. As a corollary, I would argue that this year’s commemoration of the Armistice should be the last. That does not mean that we should cease to pray or reflect on what war is and does — far from it. Nor do I think that we should abandon those who suffer even now from war and the effects of war. On the contrary, I should like to see much more help and understanding for those who suffer PTSD, whose limbs and lives have been shattered, for example. But I think we need to question more rigorously what our acts of remembrance are meant to achieve and why we surround them with so much that is alien, if that is the right word, to those who actually did the fighting and dying we commemorate.

A commentator said recently that in politics people are driven by four things, love, hope, hate and fear, and the two most powerful are hate and fear. It is true that society has a way of creating objects of hatred and fear, and I have asked myself several times whether we are simply prolonging the quarrels and tragedies of the past as a way of avoiding some unpalatable truths in the present. The British obsession with Germany and with Hitler is a case in point. We refuse to let it go and thereby show ourselves still bound, and, what is worse, perpetrate a new injustice. We do not need the memory of war to validate what we are now.We gain nothing by picking away at old wrongs; we need to learn from them instead. Perhaps we forget that we are not the heroes we celebrate, nor do we become heroes by association or by demonising some enemy, old or new. Do we use the past as a way of avoiding commitment to what the present and future ask of us?

A recommitment to service
To an earlier generation concepts like duty and service meant something. They were the motivation for conduct that might otherwise seem unfathomable. I daresay there are some who regard the stoicism with which our parents and grandparents endured privation and loss as silly, but we can think and say such things because of the sacrifices they made. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the dead to reflect more deeply on the values of duty and public service and how we measure up to them today? Quite how we do that I’m not sure because the language of public discourse seems to have lost that important element of civility. We talk of deals and our own best interest, what’s good for us in the narrowest sense, not what would make the world a better place. But it does not have to be so. We can think anew about how to serve, how to do our duty, what our duty consists in, and surely everyone would benefit.

If this should be the last Armistice Day we mark in a public way, renewing our commitment to service would be a sign that the poppies and the bugle calls were not mere sentimentality or self-indulgence but tokens of our having learned the lessons of the past, of our being ready to forge a new and better future. It would be proof that the Great War for Civilisation was not fought in vain. I pray it may be so.

Two earlier posts on Remembrance Sunday

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/08/remembrance-sunday-2015/

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/11/10/remembrance-sunday-2013/

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Hatred

We hear a great deal about ‘hate crimes’ that sometimes strike a trivial note, then something dreadful like yesterday’s mass slaughter at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, happens and we understand what hatred really means. It is not ‘mere’ prejudice or dislike translated into boorish behaviour. It is murderous — nothing less than the desire to kill, destroy, and inflict deadly harm. It is difficult even to think about such a thing, but think we must because the kind of violence displayed in Squirrel Hill is no different from that displayed by Islamist terrorists or any other individual or group that believes it has the right to exterminate others. The President of the United States of America is on record as saying that had the synagogue had armed guards, the massacre would not have occurred. To me, that sounds absurd. Surely, we should be trying to create a culture, indeed a world, where violence is unacceptable? If our default position is, we need guns to defend ourselves, we should not be surprised if those with criminal intent take us at our word and use the very same means to do us harm.

This morning we pray with and for our Jewish brethren and all who have been victims of hatred and persecution. For me, there is something peculiarly horrible about an attack on people praying in a church, mosque, synagogue or other place of worship. It is a profanation of the holy name of God, destruction of what God holds most precious — human beings. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, and we honour him best by honouring those he has created in in his own image and likeness. Let us remember that, however much provoked we may be.

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Tomorrow is Too Late

There are times when the athleticism of the Rule of St Benedict exhausts me. We are constantly being urged to hasten, run, be quick and so on. One sentence above all comes to haunt me whenever I feel a little folding of the arms would be nice: ‘Let us make haste to do now what may profit us for ever’ — currendum et agendum est modo quod in perpetuo nobis expediat (Prologue 44). There is no getting away from it. A life of ease is not for us who have vowed to follow Christ as monks or nuns, but do we have anything useful to offer those outside the cloister?

In the West the concept of leisure has become highly developed, so much so that it is even called ‘the leisure industry’. We recognize that all work and no play make Jack and Jill not only dull but ill, too. Accordingly, millions of pounds are spent on holidays and leisure activities, but these often seem to produce their own kind of stress. Is my holiday as good as yours (checks Facebook or Instagram); am I doing enough running/gym work (checks fitness bracelet), and so on. Along with the expectation of having a holiday or time off from work, there is also an element of competitiveness, of comparing ourselves with others even when we are relaxing, that fundamentally undermines the whole idea of lessening the tension or busyness we experience at other times. What is worse, we are actually so busy being leisured that we have no time for activities that make different demands on us, such as prayer, charity, service of others and so on.

If we have the opportunity of doing good, of being kind, of making the world a better place for even just one person, then tomorrow is indeed too late. We must do it now. We have a tendency to put off what what we find difficult or disagreeable. Our intentions are usually good. We are always going to do such and such — pray, donate to the Food Bank, visit that curmudgeonly neighbour down the road — but somehow this is never the right moment. We have too much to do or we need a rest or . . . The excuses are endless. St Benedict is not very good at making allowances for that kind of procrastination. He is kindly, sympathetic, but quite insistent. We must do now what will profit us for ever. Our acts of kindness and generosity will never appear on Facebook or Instagram, but I daresay they register on the heavenly fitness bracelet. Our spiritual health is as important as our physical or mental health, and it has a direct impact on others.

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Trying to Stay Positive

Most of us have experience of trying to stay positive when everything seems to be negative. The weather’s ‘wrong’; our job’s ‘wrong’; people around us are ‘wrong’. Everywhere we look we see division, squabbles, blistering rows and the most heartless violence. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain upbeat. Often it looks to others and to ourselves like foolishness or a flight from reality. Our determination to hold to our course is interpreted as stubbornness, our refusal to give in to lowness of spirits is a mere pose. Or is it?

One of the things I have learned from having metastatic leiomyosarcoma is that many of our reactions to people and events are affected by matters beyond our control. The various drugs I have to take affect my mind as well as my body. Steroids make me peppery; the anti-emetics make me tired and depressed; the chemotherapy drug itself can reduce me to a little heap of negativity quite unlike my usual self. But — and it is, as always, an important ‘but’ — there is something else at work, something that, until now at least, has always got me through. It is grace, but not necessarily grace as usually portrayed. I have no doubt that the prayers of all praying for me play a huge part in keeping me going, but there is also an element of choice. I have to choose to keep going, and I honestly don’t know where the power for that comes from. I assume it is grace, an unmerited gift of God, but I don’t assume that it will always be there or that I’ll always respond. That is not to doubt God. On the contrary, it is to assert the glorious freedom of God and our own free will and to recognize that what is possible to one person at one time may not be to another at another time. I have, so far, been able to choose to go on; others, alas, have not.

What of those who can’t go on, who are too tired/ill/broken in spirit to make choices or stay positive? We are often severe on them without meaning to be. We avoid X because he is always down in the dumps; we think Y would do a lot better if she didn’t keep harping on about what’s wrong with her life. Either way, we tend to judge them wanting because they do not conform to our idea of the brave cancer patient/the doughty battler against all odds we would like them to be (fill in as appropriate). We do not stop to ask ourselves why they should conform to our expectations in the first place, and are sometimes very grudging in our assessment of what they are struggling to cope with.

There is a sentence in the Rule of St Benedict that is well worth pondering in this context: ‘Let them bear with the greatest patience one another’s infirmities, whether of body or character.’ (RB 72. 5) Body or character . . . there’s the rub. We frequently mistake the one for the other, but that doesn’t mean we can make distinctions, saying this person is worthy of our compassion and that person isn’t. We are asked to bear with every kind of weakness with the greatest patience, and I think that stands the whole concept of staying positive on its head.  The emphasis is not so much on the one trying to stay positive as on those who have any kind of dealings with him/her. So, the person locked in clinical depression, the one who feels he/she cannot go on, the person overwhelmed by sickness or sorrow, it is not for them to feel guilty because they cannot be positive, it is for us who know them or come into contact with them to stay positive; and I suspect we can only do that by grace. In the end, it all comes down to grace, doesn’t it?

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When Love Grows Cold

St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila

Hardly a phrase one would associate with St Teresa of Avila, is it? But if one looks at the divisions in the Church, the sorry state of British politics or the sheer ugliness of much of which passes as ‘international relations’, one could surely be forgiven for thinking we have all gone mad. But it is more than that. I think, quite simply, we have forgotten how to love. We are all too busy pressing our own agenda — often, let it be said, an apparently good and worthwhile agenda — to notice that the well-spring of our actions isn’t, as we would like to think, love, but something much closer to selfishness. We are not good at self-knowledge and tend to hide the truth from ourselves. ‘The lie in the soul is a true lie’ is utter nonsense. A lie is a lie is a lie. So, is there a remedy? I think there is, and one of which St Teresa is herself a great exponent: prayer.

People often ask what prayer is (which makes a nice change from those anxious to tell me what prayer is) as though it were some strange activity in which one may occasionally indulge, but only as a last resort. My answer, that prayer is allowing God to love us and loving him in return often seems to disappoint. It is like Naaman being told to bathe in the Jordan to heal his leprosy — too simple, too easy. I smile a little smile at such times and think, ‘You try it, and you’ll soon see!’ For, of course, to pray perseveringly, day in, day out, not just when the mood seizes or when one feels the need, is a form of asceticism, properly understood — and how few are willing to submit to such a discipline!

Most of us are quite good at recognizing what is wrong with the world and we take to Social Media or blogging to share our insights (criticisms) with others. I wonder how many of us take to our knees instead or as well? St Teresa’s great work for her Order and for the Church rested upon her largely unseen life of prayer. We read her letters or pore over The Interior Castle and think how wonderful she was and how attractive the way in which she teaches us to pray, but at five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning or after a hard day at work, the enthusiasm drains away, and who can blame us?

Today’s challenge, therefore , is simultaneously hard and easy: it is to resolve, yet again, to make time for prayer and stick to it — not prayer as endless petitions; not prayer as flowery phrases or telling God what he already knows; but prayer as allowing God to love us and loving him in return. The prayer of love and silence comes to us as sheer gift but it transforms life because it leads to Life himself.

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New Saints, Old Gospels

Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980
Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980

At some time in their life, I imagine every religious has heard today’s gospel (Mark 10.17–30) addressed to themselves. To give up everything for Christ, including the intellectual and cultural riches that often form an even greater barrier to discipleship than the material ones, sounds wonderful. After all, it led Antony into the desert. Where might it lead us? But stop there for a moment. Much of the gospel is not about renunciation as such, it is about the difficulty of entering the Kingdom, of living virtuously, of being totally dependent on God who so often seems to hide himself or who behaves in ways we find inexplicable. The God of the poor and oppressed whom we invoke daily in the Magnificat is sometimes a difficult God to trust. The poor we have always with us, indeed, and their sufferings do not diminish.

Bl. Oscar Romero, who is to be canonised today, was not always the champion of the poor and oppressed he became. That he did become such a champion, that he pleaded with President Jimmy Carter not to arm the brutal Salvadoran security forces and that, ultimately, he was shot dead as he celebrated Mass, is a powerful witness to the miracles grace can achieve. Here in England we have our own history of martyred archbishops, but their deaths often seem far away and long ago. We do not connect them with the words of today’s gospel in the way that we can connect the archbishop of El Salvador. Because the truth I find arresting about Oscar Romero is this: he gave up everything for Christ, including life itself, not in an act of brave defiance but quietly, prayerfully, his gaze fixed on the Lord. The burning words of the homily he gave the day before were not on his lips as he died but the ancient words of the Church’s liturgy. The personal was subsumed into something much larger, much greater. If we forget that, I think we fail to do justice to the man. He was not ‘just’ a thorn in the side of the Salvadoran establishment, not ‘just’ what we would call an activist. He was someone who had given his whole life to Christ. Jesus had looked at him and loved him; and he returned the gaze.

Today we rejoice in the new saints the Church is adding to the calendar. Let us learn from them and ask their prayers. As we do so, perhaps we could spend a few minutes re-reading today’s gospel and asking ourselves what it demands of us, here and now. It is no good admiring saints like Oscar Romero from afar and thinking that is all we need to do. We may not be able to emulate their heroic gift of self, but surely we can try to rid our hearts of hatred, bitterness, and the selfishness that destroys others as well as ourselves.

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Of Colds and Cantankerousness

No one likes having a cold. If one is immuno-suppressant, a cold can turn into something really nasty depressingly quickly, so one makes one’s misery plain to keep others at bay. In any case, a cold seems to justify being just a teeny-weeny bit cantankerous, doesn’t it? I myself take full advantage of the privilege thus afforded. I gloomily admit I am too tired to do what I ought and try not to think of all that is mounting up on the to-do list. Bro Dyfrig BFdeB’s share of a mid-morning biscuit is reduced in size from a companionable half to a mean morsel no bigger than a thumbnail. Meals are ‘simplified’ to dullness. The Divine Office is muttered in private. Bed-time comes early.

The trouble is, the world goes on as it always has; and while one weeps for the sufferings of those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia or the acutely painful Senate hearing in the U.S.A., one’s overwhelming desire is to avoid trouble, confrontation, anything that detracts from concentration on one’s own woe. With a cold one’s whole existence shrinks to present pain and exhaustion and poor, poor me. Which may possibly be why most of us get colds, at least occasionally. It is only when one has plumbed the depths of one’s own preoccupation with self that one can recognize how easy it is to pass from being a kind, generous person, genuinely interested in others, to a selfish, crotchety so-and-so that no one (apart from God and the dog) wishes to spend time with.

Let’s pause there for a moment. The two exceptions I mention, God and the dog, are worth thinking about. What do they see in us when we are at our least attractive that makes them brave our churlishness and irritability? Clearly, they accept us as we are. I think they must see something we tend to overlook, both in ourselves and in other people: the mystery of grace, our being ‘immortal diamond’, someone infinitely loveable. That is humbling in the best sense — and something to remember when we have a cold.*

*My own cold seems to be getting better so I should be able to have my delayed chemotherapy on Thursday, 4 October, D.V..

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Prisoners of the Past?

The debate about Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for appointment to the U.S.A. Supreme Court has raised questions of wider application, i.e. this post is not about Mr Kavanaugh or his fitness or otherwise for the office for which he is under consideration, it is about how far ‘the child is father of the man.’ In other words, how far back do we go in anyone’s past to assure ourselves of their fitness for office now, and what are the crimes/sins/offences that we judge to be inadmissible?

For example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received a lot of criticism in some quarters because at the age of sixteen he belonged to a Nazi youth organisation. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history would know that it would have been very difficult for him not to belong, and nothing in his subsequent life suggests that he subscribed to Nazi ideology, yet that has not stopped the criticisms. I daresay most of us can look back on the things we said or did when we were teenagers and shudder, without taking into account the political or economic circumstances of the day. But what about when we are older, when we are in our twenties, say? It begins to be less easy to dismiss criticisms of our beliefs or behaviour, and of course, the media have their favourite forms of wrongdoing to castigate. The politicians who smoked pot in their youth, the philanderers, the British Nationalist/Communist Party activists, those who joined weird and whacky cults, we have our suspicions of them all, and the media delight in feeding our suspicions.

Christians believe in the possibility of conversion and the reality of forgiveness, but that does not stop us being hard-headed about the risks associated with certain kinds of behaviour. Someone who takes drugs, for example, or regularly drinks him- or her-self into a stupour is not the person most of us would want to have a finger on the nuclear button. Nor would we want someone with a sense of sexual entitlement to have the power to force himself on another. The trouble is, we have to weigh up what we know of the person we see now with what is disclosed about his/her past and exercise some very delicate judgement.

One of the good things to have come out of the #MeToo movement is the increased openness with which people are acknowledging abuse suffered in the past. One of the not so good things has been a noticeable tendency to vilify those coming forward with their stories. There is a parallel with what is happening in the Catholic Church. The sheer awfulness of the suffering endured by so many is finally being admitted yet, at the same time, there has been a kind of counter-movement by some to minimize the suffering inflicted or apportion blame in such a way that ‘it touches us not. Our withers are unwrung.’ It leaves the rest of us wondering where truth and justice lie.

I myself have a divided mind about how far back in anyone’s past we should go for evidence of unfitness for office, but it is not a question I can ignore any more than you can. In the end, I suppose we have to be pragmatic. If X was a virulent anti-Semite in their youth, have we evidence of a change of heart? If Y was a sexual predator, has their behaviour changed with marriage and family? The one exception I think I would make is that paedophiles and psychopaths do not seem able to change, so I would be very wary indeed of knowingly placing them in situations where they could do harm. None of us wishes anyone to be a prisoner of their past. Equally, none of us wants to have on our conscience suffering we could have prevented.

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