Most of us know what it is to be misunderstood and have our good intentions pooh-poohed or disbelieved. If we’re honest, most of us also know what it is to misunderstand and treat others’ good intentions with suspicion or incredulity. Comparatively few of us, however, know how to clear up misunderstandings without making things worse. Only too often we say or do something that strikes the other person to the disagreement as being off-key. Hurt or angry feelings multiply and what began as minor ends as major. Recently, I’ve had a couple of experiences of that myself. In both cases I can say that I had no evil intention, and I assume my interlocutor didn’t, either. The fact that attempts to patch things up didn’t go as hoped doesn’t mean that trying to resolve differences is pointless or doomed to failure. I think we have to go on living dangerously, trying to resolve differences when we can, but the time may come when we have to recognize we are unequal to the task and have to leave the matter to God. Knowing when to do that requires humility, trust and charity in equal measure. To some, leaving a disagreement unresolved (or turning it over to God, as I have suggested) is tantamount to failure and a sign of weakness. A few of my friends suffer from the ‘I must win every argument’ idiocy. I can live with that. What I can’t do is live with it in myself, can you?
The monastery is being besieged by aggrieved pub owners and hairdressers because of a throwaway remark I made earlier this week about H.M. Government being apparently more interested in them than in the Arts. If I were a pub owner or a hairdresser, no doubt I’d be besieging the monastery, too.* The fact is, we all tend to react to what most concerns us, or we admit to having a divided mind on some subjects where we can see both positives and negatives. At one level, for instance, I’m pleased the Government thinks it must do something to preserve Wetherspoons and the jobs it provides. At another, I’m less than pleased that the Government seems to think the Royal Albert Hall and the jobs it provides is expendable. As regards the opening of churches and places of worship, I admit to equally divided feelings, but I am very conscious of the fact that the monastery has a chapel, that the Blessed Sacrament is kept there, and that the Divine Office, with its steady round of prayer and worship, is maintained daily. I can do exactly what St Benedict recommends, go in at any time and pray. That isn’t possible for many of my fellow Christians. I am privileged in a way most are not, and I shall spend part of today praying for those who are not so blessed and reflecting on how the Church must meet the needs of its members.
I think that is one reason why Sundays are so important. It’s not just a question of liturgical significance, nor is it anything to do with the human need to rest, or not exactly. Sundays provide a moment of sabbath calm for reflection on all that has gone before. When God rested on the sabbath day and viewed all he had created, he found it not merely good but very good. Sometimes we need to pause to register the good in a situation or person. Otherwise we just go chuntering on, missing the moment and missing the blessing, too. It is no accident that St Benedict saw the pursuit of peace as a key element in monastic life. His peace wasn’t the mere absence of activity or conflict; it was much more like the sabbath calm in which God’s creativity takes full effect. May your Sunday be blessed with sabbath calm, too.
Recently I had what one might call a salutary experience. I was repairing a door jamb for which I had to get down on my knees. That is not easy for me but I managed it, painful though it was. Then disaster struck. I couldn’t get up, and no one was around. The pain intensified. My left leg, the one with lymphoedema and other nasties, was useless. My right leg felt weak and unreliable and wouldn’t provide me with enough spring to get up. My cries for help became more desperate, finally turning into sad little whimpers. Eventually, after what seemed an age, I managed to get onto my bottom and edge myself into the building. I had reached the point of wondering whether I could continue or would give in to the pain, when someone came past and helped me to my feet. I felt both silly and relieved and inclined to laugh at myself for making a mountain out of a molehill.
It is very easy to make mountains out of molehills, but we don’t always laugh at them. Trifling setbacks or negative experiences can be allowed to loom large in our lives, making us prey to self-pity or unremitting anger. We can magnify the shortcomings of others so that we no longer see them as they are, only the monsters our spite or misunderstanding has created. That is especially true for those of us who engage with social media on a regular basis. We can see the world through a distorting lens and fail to realise that we may contribute to the distortion by our own unthinking attitudes or the way we voice our complaints. We may see ourselves as beacons of light set high on a mountain when in fact we are more like little molehills down on the plain that people stumble over. The experience of being powerless, of having to rely on others, can indeed be salutary as I have said, because it it reminds us of our dependence on one another. More than that, it teaches us that when we need help we may have to rely on the most unlikely people, on apparent chance or on other factors beyond our control. In short, there is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation in any sense.
This morning there are many people who need help. Most of them are unknown to us. They are ‘out there’ in South America, Syria, Yemen; in the next town, the next street, next door: easily forgotten or ignored. Just occasionally, we may register that we too need help. We ‘bottom out’ so to say, and that is when we discover that our pretensions to self-sufficiency are absurd, that grace is all around and we must rely on it to get us out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. We have only to ask and grace will be given in abundance — not necessarily as we would like or choose, but given nonetheless. That is worth thinking about. Whether the need be material or spiritual, our own or another’s, let us pray that both we and they may be as open to receive as we are to give.
While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.
We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.
So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.
I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.
The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.
Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?
I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness recently. Partly, I know, it is the effect of reading or listening to the news in the light of our readings from scripture and the Rule of St Benedict; partly it is the effect of knowing my disease is progressing and my not wanting to die burdened with a refusal to forgive others; mainly, however, it is the experience of myself being forgiven that weighs with me. I can look back on my life and see how often people have given me the benefit of the doubt, granted me a second chance, just put up with me — especially those who have treated me the best when I’ve behaved the worst, i.e. the community I live with.
This morning, however, I admit to feeling discouraged. Recently I was sent a letter by someone I don’t know. It was a courteous and kindly letter, urging me to reflect on what the writer perceived to be the errors of Christianity and embrace Islam. My first thought was, if only some Christians were as courteous how much better would be the impression we give of our faith. I said as much on some Social Media accounts. Most people got my point (though not, I suspect, those with a tendency to rant and rave!). Others either didn’t, or decided to use the opportunity to voice their own views of Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, that’s where prejudice and fear began to raise their heads. It hasn’t got too bad, but I may have to step in and delete my original post because, as I often have to say, I don’t want that kind of negativity on any of my Social Media accounts. Informed debate (even, let’s be honest, on some matters, ignorant debate) is fine; attacks on others aren’t; and the historian in me bristles when old chestnuts are brought out with little regard for their validity.
Prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of the facts. It means a preconceived idea based neither on reason nor experience. It is usually, but not always, hostile and often proceeds from fear. Frequently, there is a small smattering of truth contained within it: not enough to justify it, but enough to give it a slight appearance of reasonableness. So, for example, we can say that politicians are self-serving. Some are; most aren’t; but the idea is current because of recent high-profile cases of corruption in high places both in this country and elsewhere. Our prejudice against the political class can be said to proceed from fear of its power over our lives. (Please note, I’m saying this by way of example because I don’t want to be drawn into specifics by those who take everything literally.)
So, how do prejudice and fear link with forgiveness? That is where I’d say we have to do some hard thinking. Many people assume that forgiveness has to do with concrete acts: saying or doing what is wrong. But words and deeds proceed from thoughts and attitudes, which is why monastic tradition has always paid close attention to setting a guard on the thoughts that run through our minds incessantly. We don’t stop thinking, but we do have to check any tendency to let our thoughts run away with us into negative channels. Sometimes it seems to me that we carry a pent-up sea within ourselves, its waves crashing and breaking on many a different shore. It is a far-fetched analogy, perhaps, but just as the health of all life on the planet is intimately linked with the health of the oceans, so our willingness to ‘take every thought captive for Christ’ plays an essential part in our spiritual health. We let go of our prejudice and fear by inserting ourselves into his forgiveness, letting him forgive in and through us. And, as always, we find that if we do that, we ourselves are forgiven. Something to ponder, I suggest, when we read the headlines today.
Where do we start? I’ve been very quiet recently, not for any sinister reason but because I felt I must either say a great deal about some subjects or keep very quiet. On the subject of racism, for example, I can say very little. I don’t understand it and never have. It simply baffles me that skin colour could ever be used as a marker of supposed inferiority/superiority. On the subject of slavery and the slave trade, however, I would have to say a great deal because the subject is historically much more complex than many who see it solely in terms of Black Slavery from the sixteenth century onwards seem to realise — and the tragedy is that it still continues today. I prefer to leave these questions to others, so it is probably just as well that I have been busy with many of those things that keep a monastery going but which are neither romantic nor particularly interesting to outsiders.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that one fails to register what is going on in the world outside the cloister or the injustices that are perpetrated. There are the big injustices: the corruption that bedevils political decision-making, often without our being fully aware of it; the economic exploitation that enriches some but impoverishes others; the suppression of freedoms and the manipulation of opinion that makes us all doubt whom we can really trust or what we can believe. Then there are the smaller injustices, those we experience personally and acutely: the failure to recognize our goodwill; the attack on our good name or the belittling of our attempts to be kind or generous; even the breakdown of relationships or our own health can come into this category. It isn’t always easy to respond with courage or the kind of bright-eyed determination we are taught to admire. Sometimes we just want to go into a corner, curl up in a heap and howl.
Cue the entrance of St Barnabas, whose feast-day this is. We might think he would have something of a chip on his shoulder for being the perpetual ‘second fiddle,’ first to Paul, then to John Mark. Even today his liturgical commemoration is ranked not as a full feast (festum) but as a memorial (memoria). In Acts 11.24 he is described as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. I think that explains why we can derive so much encouragement from Barnabas. He is not one of those on whom the spotlight naturally falls. He’s more of a peace-maker than an agitator or protestor. He introduced Paul to the apostles after his conversion and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys, which speaks volumes about his tact and patience. He defended gentile converts against the Judaizers, and when the break with Paul finally came, Barnabas seems to have gone on quietly preaching and teaching, happy to leave the first place to his more brilliant colleague. We might say that Barnabas’s life is an essay in living creatively with injustice, not condoning it nor grumbling about it but generously accepting it and not letting it get in the way of what really mattered.
Thinking about St Barnabas makes me question how I cope with the small injustices I encounter in my own life. It is an uncomfortable question but one I feel the need to address before I can properly think about some of the larger ones mentioned above. Sometimes we try to avoid dealing with our own shortcomings by concentrating on those of others or society in general. We forget that, like Barnabas, we have to work at becoming good ourselves before we can hope to encourage others to become good in their turn. The trouble is, we’ll never see the good in ourselves but we must hope that others will. That, surely, is the way to change the world — but it will never be easy.
Yesterday I alluded to the portrait of the abbot as Christian leader in the first part of chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict and the different ways in which four abbots of Cluny exemplified its ideals. This morning I’d like to turn to verses 11 to 15 and their warning against hypocrisy.
Benedict tells us that the abbot must teach more by example than by words, especially when confronted with those of harder heart and duller understanding (people like me, in other words), and then goes on to insist that what he teaches, he must himself observe. So, there can be no two standards of observance in the monastery, one for the abbot and another for the other monks; no two interpretations of lockdown restrictions, one for government ministers and another for the rest of us; no two expectations of moral behaviour, one for men and boys, another for women and girls. Above all, there must be no preaching one thing and doing another.
It’s quite easy to become hypocritical without really meaning to. The origins of the word in Greek theatre provide the clue. We can play a part, pretend. Often our pretending is a sign of our wanting to be better, more interesting than we think we are. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’, whatever that might be. Sometimes, however, we are led to making judgements of others that have more to do with our not wanting them to be as good as they are rather than any just appreciation of their merits or defects. There is so much opinion floating around these days that we are frequently lazy about checking facts. We make assumptions, allow our ignorance to go unchallenged, do harm by not thinking things through.
What St Benedict wrote fifteen hundred years ago to guide the leader of a small community of men seeking to follow Christ is still relevant today. We have to guard against hypocrisy, but in ourselves rather than in others. Something to think about, I suggest, when tempted to call out the sins and shortcomings of others in social media and the like.
St Benedict didn’t actually write anything with such a title, but his two chapters on the abbot provide some excellent guidelines — and not just for monastics. At a time when we are experiencing something of a crisis of leadership in the Western world, it’s good to think about what leadership is, how it acts in the service of others, the constraints under which it must operate and the co-operation it must have from those who are led if it is to achieve anything of value. The feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, about whom I have written often in the past, provides us with an opportunity to reflect anew on the relationship between authority and obedience, power and service; and by one of those neat co-incidences only heaven and the calendar can arrange, this morning we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot with its portrait of a wise and kindly leader whose daunting task it is to be ‘the representative of Christ in the monastery’. (RB 2.2)
Most people know that Cluny was the mother-house of what was, in effect, the first religious order in the Church, eventually numbering over 2,000 houses, including several in England. Many also know that there were so many monks at Cluny itself that they had to be divided into separate choirs, constantly singing the praises of God in a laus perennis. Inevitably, expansion created problems and by the time of the French Revolution, the Cluniacs were so identified with the Ancien Régime that they were ripe for suppression. If one goes to Cluny today one can see little of the abbey remains for most of it was demolished in 1810 and the stone carted away. It is not the buildings that made Cluny great, however, but the people.
Earlier, on Twitter, I tried to give something of the personalities and achievements of four of the abbots of Cluny. Listed in date order these are:
Maiolus was both librarian and cellarer (bursar) before becoming abbot of Cluny. He refused to become pope when Otto II wanted him to do so but concentrated on making his community observant and learned. #scholarship
Odilo was abbot of Cluny for 55 years. He was a peace-maker, introducing the notion of truce from Fridays to Mondays and in Advent and Lent. From 1028-1033 he had most of Cluny’s treasures melted down to relieve the poor. #generosity
Hugh was abbot of Cluny for 60 years, during which time the number of houses under him increased from c. 60 to c. 2000,., He was an influential mediator and papal diplomat but still took his regular turn as monastic cook. #humility
Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny for 25 years, argued against persecution of the Jewish people, defended Abelard, had the Quran translated into Latin so that Islam could be studied from its sources, and refused to have anything to do with the Second Crusade. #integrity
As expected, Peter the Venerable has attracted most attention because his concerns resonate with contemporary values, but I have a suspicion many monks and nuns will be more drawn to Hugh. Noreen Hunt paints an unforgettable picture of him cooking beans in the monastery kitchen, and kitchen duty or its equivalent tends to loom larger in our lives than international diplomacy or monastic empire building. I think that is a useful clue to the nature of genuine leadership. It is with those who are led. It shares our difficulties and aspirations even as it tries to guide us. In the case of the monastic leader, the path to be trodden is that of holiness and zeal. Benedict singles out for special care the teaching of the abbot and his responsibility for the way in which the community acts, or fails to act, on his words. It follows that his teaching must be clear, consistent and entirely in accordance with the gospel, marked with compassion, yes, but also firm about what is unacceptable.
That Cluny lasted so long and produced so many saints is testimony to the leadership and zeal of its abbots and the desire of the community to become holy or, as we might say today, the best it could. There were consequences for society in general, too, many of them helpful, like the efforts to reduce war and violence. I wonder how today’s secular leadership measures up to that in its service of the common good, its exercise of authority and its use of power. Ideas, anyone?
Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?
I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.
As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’.
Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?
Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.
Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends.
That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.
Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.
Or perhaps I should say, potentially heroes. Time was when to be a hero meant one of two things: one was either very, very brave or one came from the world of Greek myth where a certain low cunning could cheerfully co-exist with nobility of character. Nowadays, it is a little more complicated. The definition of ‘hero’ has been enlarged but it has also undergone some sea-changes. What we call Judaeo-Christian morality has intervened, making it difficult to applaud those whose sense of right and wrong is notably elastic. On the one hand we expect our heroes to be men and women of substance, with some moral backbone, but then again, we don’t, or rather, we apply our criteria selectively. It is usually enough that our heroes should have done something we consider remarkable or worthy of attention. We can now become heroes by being generous (good), doing our duty (good), achieving something judged great (good-ish), or simply surviving long enough for no-one to be able to find any other word to describe us (hmn).
My father often remarked that many men who fought during World War II were not heroes, but they did their duty, whether bravely or fearfully. He singled out for particular praise the stretcher-bearers and ambulance drivers who faced death daily in the service of others but were not universally regarded as heroic. I think we would all see them differently now. It takes a special kind of courage to go on, day after day, taking huge risks for others.
Tonight, as the nation claps for the NHS, we will be applauding those of our own time risking their lives to save others, but perhaps we should also be asking whether we are clapping and calling NHS staff ‘heroes’ to let ourselves off the hook. Are we indulging in a kind of mass sentimentality that makes us feel good but leaves the people we are applauding in exactly the same position they were before, often feeling badly treated and taken for granted? Call someone a ‘hero’ and we place on them the burden of being ‘heroic’. Should we really be doing that? What can we do to ensure that our tribute to the NHS is more than just empty noise?
I would suggest that we could each ask ourselves these questions. Are we fully co-operating with the measures intended to protect everyone from COVID-19? Are we accepting the restraints put on us with generosity and goodwill?* For the Benedictines among us, and those inspired by the Rule of St Benedict, are we grumbling or doing our best to encourage others during this time of uncertainty and difficulty? Are we being kind? Are we putting others and their needs first? Are we being Christ-bearers? In other words, are we being heroes in the modern, extended sense or are we expecting others to be heroic on our behalf? I wonder.
*That doesn’t mean accepting things uncritically. It does mean no moaning or trying to get round regulations just because it suits us — organized selfishness in other words.