House of Prayer or Robbers’ Den? The Case for Spiritual Distancing.

Today’s gospel, Luke 19. 45–48, neatly encapsulates many people’s attitude to the Church, though I suspect those most hostile to her would not necessarily pick up the scriptural references but simply condemn her as ‘rich and corrupt’. Try applying the gospel text to ourselves as believers, and the words begin to sizzle uncomfortably. Is my heart a place where the Lord can pray unceasingly, or is it full of contradictory desires and selfish wants that not only block prayer but make me hypocritical — always a charge against Christians, but sometimes justified.

In a monastery you might think we have it all under control, but alas, that is not so. We have to learn, day by day, how to make the heart open to the Lord. Liturgy, the practice of lectio divina and, above all, living in community are great helps but none of them can take the place of the daily, personal conversion of heart expected of us. We vow it, so it must be possible; but it is a never-ending work in progress. One important aspect of conversion is the readiness to listen to people and opinions we don’t immediately find attractive; and by listening I mean more than waiting just long enough to hear the words but only in order to reject them. I mean really trying to understand what is meant and weighing it carefully to see whether it applies to us or not.

We are exhorted to be always on the alert for the voice of God, but it can be difficult to sift out other voices that do not come from him. I think that is why Benedict is so keen on humility, mercy and restraint of speech. He knows we are apt to assume we’re right about everything and be harsh on those who disagree with us. I know I am! But if we are truly to turn to the Lord and make our hearts a house of prayer, we need to practise what I’m tempted to call ‘spiritual distancing’. Older writers called it ‘detachment,’ and it means more than being indifferent to wealth or ease or avoiding sin. It means a wholly different ‘take’ on life which places God at the centre. Part of that involves cultivating freedom from our own opinions and preferences, and that can be more difficult than overcoming other, more material, forms of self-indulgence.

May I make a suggestion? Today, when tempted to react negatively, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether there is something you need to think about before you reply. It won’t necessarily stop you screaming at the radio or sending off that angry tweet, but it may open an unexpected pathway to grace in your life — and that can never be a bad thing, can it?

Audio version

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Trivial Reflections

Yesterday I spent a few minutes studying the features of a man who lived and died more than 4,000 years ago — one of the amazing reconstructions made possible by developments in forensic anatomy. As I did so, I wondered whether he had ever seen his own face with the clarity with which I was able to. I know next to nothing about the history of mirrors but have a vague idea that, in these islands, polished stone and discs of bronze were used quite early on. They were better than staring into a pool or bowl of water, but I don’t know whether such mirrors were the preserve of the rich or more generally available. The image reflected back by any of these methods would probably have been dim, perhaps distorted by the wind in the case of water, or flaws in the surface or angle of the light falling on it in the case of stone or bronze.

My 4,000 year old man did not see daily, and in close-up, the changes to his face as we can see the changes to our own. Did that affect his sense of self, I wonder? Did not knowing what he looked like in detail affect the way he viewed the world and his own place in it? My blind and visually impaired friends vary in what they say about not being able to see themselves as I am able to see myself, so I am left pondering. We take a modicum of self-knowledge for granted, at least at the physical level. Delving below the surface to our thoughts and feelings is infinitely more complex. As we grow older, we may grow in insight; but not always. Like St Paul, we can find ourselves wanting to do the right thing but failing again and again.

We do not know what our 4,000 year old compatriot thought or felt. We have only his skeleton, a few grave goods, and his reconstructed head. He lived a hard life and died in his late teens or early twenties, perhaps from malnutrition. We do not know whom or what he worshipped, whether he had children, how he was perceived by his contemporaries. But we do know the most important thing of all. He was a man. He was human like us. And on a day when the popular press was howling with rage about Peter Sutcliffe and his unspeakable crimes, it was good to remember that. I prayed for my unknown man, as I prayed for Peter Sutcliffe, his victims, and all who bear the scars of his monstrous behaviour. Judgement I’ll leave to God.

Audio version
https://anchor.fm/digitalnun/episodes/Trivial-reflections-emfekl

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Remembrance Sunday 2020

The Mother of Jesus embracing the Mother of Judas. By Nicholas Mynheer. In a private collection and used by permission.
The Mother of Jesus embracing the Mother of Judas. By Nicholas Mynheer. In a private collection and used by permission.

Not the expected drift of blood-red poppies or the silhouette of a lonely cross with a World War I helmet dangling from it but a much more challenging image to illustrate this Remembrance Sunday post. We remember those who fought and died best when we strive to achieve what they fought for: a kinder, more peaceful, more forgiving world. The embrace of these two mothers grieving the loss of their children is a stark reminder that we do not have to hate; we do not have to be divided. Reconciliation is always possible, if we are willing to allow it. Let us pray that it may be so, whatever kind of war or conflict may confront us.

Note: I also wrote about this image during Holy Week this year.

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Nought for Your Comfort?

The relentlessly cheerful and optimistic can be rather trying to the rest of us, who would probably say we are ‘realists’ or claim to be cool and rational in the face of the world’s ills. (Personally, I think ‘cool and rational’ is rather overdone since it tends to be the attitude of those who like to give others the benefit of their opinion unasked, but let’s leave that for the moment.) There is certainly a great deal to be exercised about at present. In Britain we face never-ending scraps about statistics, lockdown restrictions and the economy, not helped by silly headlines such as ‘Worship Banned’ or ‘Christmas Likely To be Cancelled’ and the ramping up of the perceived likelihood of another terrorist attack. Across the Atlantic there is the disedifying spectacle of the President questioning (that’s the most neutral word I can find) the validity of his country’s democratic processes, to the great delight of Russia and China and totalitarian regimes everywhere. Meanwhile, people are dying in the mud of landslides in Guatemala or lonely and afraid in Cameroon and Mozambique, while the starving children of Yemen are largely ignored and the abuse of human rights elsewhere is mainly remembered only when it serves another purpose.

Those who forecast the end of the world as we have known it may well be right. The tradition of liberal Western democracy most of us have grown up with may not survive. The economic systems with which we are familiar may be lost as the East comes to dominate both manufacturing and finance. As for the Church, there must be a question-mark over whether she can continue to ignore so many of the intellectual and cultural changes that affect our lives or even sustain the huge investment in personnel and plant (churches, schools, seminaries, etc.) that has characterised previous centuries. Bombs, beheadings, the sheer inhumanity and selfishness we see daily must give us pause. ‘What is the world coming to?’ we cry, but answer comes there none.

And yet. And yet, God is still there, endlessly creative, and the human spirit is there, too, graced with compassion and fellow-feeling. If we are being called to a new situation, a new way of being, as I think we are, surely we can take heart from those two elementary truths. That is where real comfort (in the sense of strength) is to be found. Over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to share with you a few ideas on the subject. In the meantime, let’s pray for one another, and especially for those who feel daunted by the prospect before them.

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A Neat Co-Incidence

By one of those co-incidences that only the Holy Spirit can manage, we celebrate today two saints with the gift of healing — St Winefride and St Martin de Porres — and read chapter 27 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Special Care the Abbot Should Have for the Excommunicated. What could be better for the day of the presidential election in the U.S.A. and for when Austria and Afghanistan are in mourning for yesterday’s loss of life in terrorist attacks.

The real healing that takes place at Holywell is not a physical cure but an inward, spiritual one. I was completely unprepared for the impact the shrine would have on me when I first visited it. The legends surrounding St Winefride may stretch credulity, but no one can be unaffected by the sense of prayer that invests every stone. It is in truth a holy place. In the same way, St Martin de Porres, who was born poor, lived poor, and died poor, is the patron saint of racial harmony. Of mixed race himself, he understood the many and various ways in which race can be used to put people down, disparage them, treat them as ‘other’, less than human. He, too, has much to say to us today. And St Benedict? In chapter 27 he goes to great lengths to express the care the abbot must have for the weak and wayward, for those who cause him sleepless nights and infinite trouble. His is not a tyranny over the strong but service of those in need.

Today, when the people of the U.S.A. are called upon to vote for the man who will be their political leader for the next four years and the governments of Austria and Afghanistan must respond to the violence in their midst, the need for healing, for racial harmony and care of the least able members of society, has never been greater. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has shattered old certainties and exposed what we are truly made of, sometimes to our chagrin, but I think today’s neat conjunction of saints and saint’s reflections can nudge us in a more positive direction. Let us pray it may be so.

Note
The text of RB 27 is available as a podcast here : https://anchor.fm/digitalnun/episodes/Rule-of-St-Benedict–chapter-27-The-Abbots-Special-Care-for-the-Excommunicated–as-read-in-monasteries-on-4-March–4-July-and-3-November-eg92cd/a-a2k8v2a

Below are links to some of my previous posts about St Winefride’s Well.

  1. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/03/as-long-as-men-are-mortal-and-god-mercifulrb-27-and-st-winefrides-well/
  2. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/06/26/pilgrimage-to-st-winefrides-well/
  3. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/12/12/where-prayer-has-been-valid/
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Are We All Becoming Bullies?

Before you respond with an indignant ’no,’ please bear with me for a moment. The word ‘bully’ has undergone a sea-change over the centuries. It was originally a term of endearment. Only since the seventeenth century has it come to mean someone who tries to force another person to do their bidding. Thinking about the bullies I have known and the way in which they acted, I have frequently wondered whether there isn’t a strange mixture of attraction and repulsion about bullying behaviour. The worst bully I ever encountered was, I suspect, a psychopath, with all the deadly charm of such. On the whole, however, I think we are apt to downplay the bully and the harm they do. Why is that?

Our attitude to bullying
One reason is probably our distanced attitude to bullying. If it does not directly affect us or someone we love, especially a child, it remains an abstraction. How many of us think of bullies in terms of the school playground — the bigger boy or girl who uses greater physical strength to humiliate someone who is ‘different’ or can’t fight back? Yet we’ve all met the bully who uses a constant drip of withering words to undermine another’s confidence. To an outsider, some marriages seem to be based on a bullying/bullied relationship which may not involve physical violence but is psychologically damaging. Bullying in the workplace is, if not a commonplace, certainly not rare, but comparatively few are ready to challenge it. Even in religious communities, I’m sorry to say, we can see bullying in operation, often thinly veiled by admiration of a ‘charismatic leader’ or the misapplication of a religious value such as obedience. We are aware of online bullying and dutifully express our horror when someone is trolled or receives rape or death threats, but I wonder how many of us stop to ask ourselves whether we contribute to a bullying culture, not by our silence or timidity as many might think, but by what we actually do and say?

Dissent from popular opinions
You must have noticed, as I have, that any questioning of a current orthodoxy or popular opinion tends to be dealt with scathingly. There is no argument, simply a howl of outrage or dismissal. I almost fear to name some of the matters where expression of another point of view is effectively prevented, but try this list. It has no particular order but deliberately includes a few subjects currently generating more heat than light:

Pope Francis
Donald Trump
Joe Biden
abortion
transgender persons
homosexuality
Brexit
COVID-19 lockdowns
mask-wearing
feminism
Black slavery and statues
gender-free and inclusive language, especially in the liturgy
Christianity
Islam
party politics
nuns’ habits
conservatism
socialism.

Unless you have never expressed an opinion of any of them, can you honestly say you have always entertained contrary opinions with courtesy and open-mindedness? It has been made clear to me, occasionally, that I can only state my own view of some subjects if I am prepared to receive the equivalent of a tongue-lashing and, in some cases, the threat of delation to Rome. Usually, neither bothers me, but recently I have begun to find it depressing, partly because of the amount of time and energy it takes to try to clear up misunderstandings (especially when one can’t respond as directly as one would wish), partly because of what it says about the society we have become. I don’t mean I think we have become less tolerant as such, though we may have. I’m more inclined to think we have become lazier and more aggressive than I think we were, and I’d like to know why.

Are we lazier and more aggressive than we used to be?
One reason may be that we have confused equality with egalitarianism and in striving to achieve the former have ended up with the latter. If I’m right, everyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how ill-informed (though I’m not sure even I would dare to lecture parents on how to bring up their children). Remember how we all became experts in virology and associated sciences overnight once COVID-19 stalked the world? Or, for Catholics, how we all became experts in ecclesiology and infallible sniffers out of heresy once we discovered we could broadcast our opinions to the world? Many of us have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as victims, appropriating to ourselves the wrongs suffered by our ancestors or anyone with whom we can identify. People laugh when I say the Norman Conquest remains a bone of contention, but what’s a good Jutish girl like me supposed to say? That it was a Good Thing, with the advantages outweighing the disadvantages? My mention of the Norman Conquest may make you smile, but it is a useful example of how we can cling to our own version of history and refuse to accept that there may be another view worth considering. If we look further afield, we can see that the memory of colonialism and lots of other -isms continues to cause fury, heartache and division. 

Technological change: lazy reading, lazy listening
What I think most telling, however, I’d call an unintended consequence of the technological changes that have affected us all. Thanks to the internet and the web, we are always connected, always able to share information and opinions but, at the same time, the sheer quantity of information, both real and false, available to us has made us lazy readers and listeners. Our online experience and manner of being increasingly carries over into our ordinary, everyday face-to face encounters. We react more than we reflect. Because we don’t take the trouble to read/listen closely, because we skim read and are anxious to give an instant response, we don’t necessarily absorb what anyone else is saying, much less take time to weigh it. In other words, as communication has become easier, we have actually become less inclined to communicate. As a result, we often don’t genuinely engage — and I plead guilty to that as much as the next person. That, I think, is where the desire to control comes in. To keep our own world safe, we create echo-chambers for those who think as we do and exclude those who threaten our security by thinking differently. We are often more aggressive than we intend to be. Perhaps you begin to see why I question whether we are becoming bullies. If we can’t be bothered to marshall arguments, to think as well as speak, why not just batter the other person over the head — not physically, of course, but with the kind of scornful put-down that makes anyone reluctant to engage further?

A pointer from the Rule of St Benedict
Today, in the monastery, we re-read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. Every time we hear it, I find new depths of wisdom and insight. This morning I was struck by what Benedict says about how we should approach someone from whom we want to ask a favour, with humility and respect (RB 20.1). That brought me up short. I haven’t noticed much humility and respect in recent political debates, nor in many sections of social media, though often enough a favour was being sought, whether it be a vote, funding for a project or help of another kind. Maybe we should do a little re-thinking. Humility doesn’t mean pretending we are of no value, on the contrary, it means being honest about our real value; respect doesn’t mean fawning, it literally means taking a second look, i.e. giving enough time to the other to register their true worth. Humility and respect are, so to say, two sides of the same coin and both are necessary for genuine human — and consequently humane — engagement. If our interactions are characterised by humility and respect, there can be no bullying. On the contrary, there is much more chance of a meeting of minds, of co-operation and the creation of lasting peace and goodwill. Something worth aiming for, wouldn’t you say?

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Autumnal Planting | Lenten Lilies

Wild daffodils
Wild Daffodils at Newent, Gloucestershire
© Copyright Pauline E and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Today is the Autumnal Equinox and gardeners all over England are busy planting bulbs for next spring. Yesterday I sat in a low chair and planted dozens of wild daffodil bulbs in our former vegetable patch — not the lovely little bright yellow Tenby type but the, to my eyes, even lovelier, narcissus pseudonarcissus, which is seen at its most glorious in the so-called Golden Triangle between Newent and Dymock in Gloucestershire.

I love the alternative names for these daffodils: they read like a litany of spring — Verill, Bell Rose, Bulrose, Chalice Flower, Daffy-down-dilly, Eggs and Bacon, Lent Cock, Lent Rose, Trumpet Narcissus, Yellow Crowbell. Best of all, I love the name Lenten Lily. They do not last long. They are said to bloom first on Ash Wednesday and die on Easter Day. Housman wrote one of his typically melancholy poems about them, and I found myself repeating lines from it as I planted the bulbs:

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

It reminded me of something I think we are apt to forget, so busy are we with the daily round and the demands made on us by the present. We work for the future, knowing full well that the future is not ours to command. I myself may not live to see my Lenten lilies bloom, but someone will. Planting them is not only an act of faith in a future hidden from view but the expression of a desire to make that future a little brighter, a little lovelier for others. There are many people whose lives are bleak and unhappy; many children who don’t have enough to eat or the chance of going to school. What we can do to help may be little enough, but we have to start somewhere. We may be able to give time or money or expertise; if we can, we should. We may perhaps be able to plant a few flowers for others to enjoy. All of us can give prayer.

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A Little History is a Helpful Thing

Once upon a time there was a Greek archbishop of Canterbury and a North African abbot of the monastery of St Peter and Paul, also in Canterbury. Theodore, the Greek archbishop, came from Tarsus, where as a boy he had experienced the horrors of the Sassanid invasions and been exposed to Persian culture. He is likely to have studied at Antioch before the Muslim conquest of Tarsus in 637 led him first to Constantinople, then to Rome. We know that he was familiar with Syriac as well as Greek and Latin and skilled in theology, languages, law, medicine and the liberal arts of his day. Adrian, his North African contemporary was a Berber by birth, immensely learned and the abbot of a monastery near Naples. Adrian was twice offered the see of Canterbury but refused, suggesting his friend Theodore instead. Pope Vitalian agreed, but insisted that Adrian should accompany Theodore to England.

Theodore was 66 when he became archbishop and served for 22 years, during which time he transformed the Church in England, appointing bishops to vacant sees, tightening ecclesiastical discipline at the synod of Hertford, and reforming the Church’s organizational structure, sub-dividing large dioceses and establishing the parish system still largely intact until recently. Adrian meanwhile established at Canterbury a school of learning second to none, which had a profound impact on the clerical and monastic culture of its time. Alfred looked back to Adrian’s day as a golden age, when scholars came to England to learn rather than the English having to go abroad to study.

A little history with our muesli is a good thing, is it not? Or is there something more substantial for us to think about? Today is the feast day of both Theodore of Tarsus and Adrian of Canterbury, so we know that to their intellectual and administrative gifts we can add virtue and holiness of life. We can also admire Theodore’s energy, starting a reform programme in a foreign country at the age of 66, and Adrian’s humility in refusing a bishopric, but, above all, I suggest we should think about what their appointment to their respective roles says about the international character of the Church — her catholicity in other words — and the way in which she is enriched by the sharing of peoples and cultures.

Anglo-Saxon England was very different from modern Britain, and in no way could we return to the kind of world that existed then. We can, however, learn some important lessons from it as it was at its best: openness to others, readiness to engage with different cultures, respect and welcome for the stranger, the valuing and cultivation of scholarship. As we appear to head towards another lockdown, with all that that implies by way of narrowing of experience and human interaction, and abandon our place in Europe and the world more generally because of decisions about Brexit and international commitments, those values may prove harder to sustain than once they were. The fact that they are harder to sustain does not mean that they are impossible, nor does it mean that they are unimportant. It does mean, however, that we will have to work harder at them. May the prayers of Saints Theodore and Adrian help us.

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A Little Further on the Way

I apologize for inflicting another sarcoma-related post on you but sometimes it is the easiest way of updating people.

Yesterday I had a good chat with my oncologist about my latest PET scan. It came as no surprise to learn that three of the metastases in my lungs have grown, one of them noticeably.

Of course, part of me was disappointed at the news. I’d love to have been told that my disease had stabilized, but I knew it hadn’t. When I say I’ll just have to grin and bear it, I’m not being brave. I’m simply trying to find a way of coping with something over which I have no control, don’t fully understand, and wish were not happening at all. But it is happening, and there is no escape. I have always loathed the kind of piety that can lapse into sentimentality or leave someone with guilt feelings because they cannot emulate the model it proposes. I won’t go gentle into that good night, I’m sure of that. I’ll go as I have lived, though I hope there won’t be too much raging on my part — and no going anywhere for a good while yet.

I would like this post to be an encouragement to those of you who are treading a similar path to mine. It may be cancer or a stroke or heart attack or some other illness that you are trying to deal with as best you can. You may have very little time left, or you may have more than you expected (I’ve lasted much longer than anyone thought I would). The pain and limitations of your illness may be wearing you down; you may be anxious about your family/community, or worried because you have no one in particular to help you at a time when you must rely on others. You may have lost hope and feel utterly depressed. Being told that such feelings are probably a side-effect of whatever treatment you are having (or not having) won’t lift the burden from your shoulders, especially not at two in the morning when you are just a sweaty, sleepless bundle of anxiety and fear. The only comfort I can offer is the one I cling to, at least when I can. We are part of the Communion of Saints. Even in our darkest, most difficult moments, we are not alone. 

I think that is why I believe that no matter how bumpy life becomes, our lives are never wasted, never meaningless. Somewhere in the midst of all the contradictions there is love, a love we might never otherwise have known but for our illness.

Love is the unfamiliar Name 
Behind the hands that wove 
The intolerable shirt of flame 
Which human power cannot remove.

There is something else we do well to remember. Those who love us, who deal with us when we are at our weakest and most demanding, who forgive us our grumbles and cantankerousness, not only show us God’s love and forgiveness. They are his love and forgiveness — incarnate, here and now. They are a foretaste of eternity. Let us give thanks for them and pray for them. Truly, theirs is the harder, lonelier, path to tread.

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Slavery, the Slave Trade and Flannery O’Connor

I know I said I wouldn’t write about slavery or the slave trade because I’m aware of its complexities, but this morning two events conspired to set me thinking. The first was the reminder that on this day in 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire over a period of six years. The second was reading that Loyola University in the USA is thinking of re-naming one of its dormitories currently named after Flannery O’Connor.

Slavery and the Black Lives Matter campaign have become intertwined, and I’m not sure it is to the advantage of either. For instance, one of the things I find most difficult about the current debate is the narrowness of its perspective and its almost total focus on Black Slavery in the modern era as the source of racism. No one in their right mind could defend any form of slavery nowadays, nor could anyone deny that there has been an enormous amount of suffering and injustice flowing from slavery that continues to the present; but I’m not sure that the history of Black Slavery explains racism. Ask any Jew, ask any older Irishman, anyone whose skin colour differs from that of the majority of those around them, whether they have encountered the kind of prejudice we could label racist, and the answer will probably be ‘yes’. When I was growing up, being a Catholic wasn’t de bon ton either, unless one belonged to a certain social class. My father refused to join a golf club which excluded Catholics and Jews and I daresay there were other little prejudices he encountered that he didn’t bother to mention.

We cannot ignore the fact that slavery still exists today, here in the UK and other parts of the world, wherever human beings are trafficked, exploited, or denied their essential dignity and freedom. I know I am not alone in thinking that we should be working to end modern slavery, as well as rooting out the prejudice we call ‘racist’, but I think it helps to know a little history when considering the memorials we have inherited from the past. I found quite a useful timeline for the abolition of slavery and serfdom on Wikipedia that some of you may be interested to read. Where I could test it, e.g. on the medieval Church’s attempts to end slavery and the slave trade, it proved accurate. It just isn’t possible to divide the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, especially not those who lived before us and were subject to different ideas and experiences. Which brings me to Flannery O’Connor.

In the rush to topple statues and distance institutions from any taint of association with slavery, we seem to have become a little confused. Cecil Rhodes, as far as I am concerned, was deeply unpleasant and the statue at Oriel is not one of the nation’s finest, so I don’t much care what happens to it, but the Rhodes Scholarships are another matter. I think we have to find a way of living with our past, not trying to do away with it or glorifying it but learning from it. Difficult, but not beyond the wit of men and women to resolve. But now, Flannery O’Connor a racist? She who identified the sufferings of what were then called negroes* with the sufferings of Christ, a racist? I can’t think of anything I’ve read of hers that would justify such a claim, which makes me wonder what the real motivation for the name-change is. She was a witty, spunky woman, with a strong Catholic faith, as well as as superb writer. Is the fact that she lived in the South to be counted against her or taken as evidence of views I certainly did not know she held (enlighten me, please, if you know more than I do).

The problem for me is that when we become a little silly about serious matters, when we overstate the case for a necessary change in attitude or practice, we can weaken our argument. Neither racism nor slavery has any place in civilized society, but perhaps we need to think more deeply about how to counter them. This is one of those areas where the religious and social intersect most clearly. We cannot be indifferent, but we should not be foolish, either.

* not a term we would use today but commonly used by both black and white citizens of the USA at the time she wrote.

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