Family Rows

Today, 26 July, is the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the names traditionally given to the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hence grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ. Usually I manage to write something appreciative of grandparents and their role in our lives but today my heart is not in it. I am more conscious of the squabbles and rows consuming Church and society (and perhaps our own families and communities, too) to feel I can contribute anything positive. It is more than a mere energy lapse or fleeting feeling of ennui. It is a recognition of our helplessness in the face of much negativity, coupled with a desire not to give in to fashionable points of view simply because they are fashionable but ‘to test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.’

Prince Harry and the Royal Family

Take, for instance, something British readers and viewers will be only too well aware of: the very public row within the Royal Family in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are principals. (Did I say that neutrally enough? What follows is not neutral.) I am not a Royal-watcher; I don’t have any ‘side’ to uphold; but the way in which Prince Harry is behaving strikes me as childish and vindictive, likely to wound his grandmother the Queen, and certain to wound his father, Prince Charles.

I do not know what it is like to lose one’s mother at an impressionable age and under very sad circumstances, but I am beginning to think that the duke is actually exploiting the situation. It makes him different, special, confers on him the right to behave in a less than adult manner. And why? Because he has never learned the importance of forgiveness, of letting go, of truly being himself rather than a person for ever defined by a tragic event that occurred in his childhood. We are told he does not want to use his royal advantage, yet at he same time he makes full use of his royal privilege. Has none of the expensive therapists and counsellors to whom he has access suggested to him that the way to be truly free is, as I said, to let go of the injuries, real or imagined, done to himself? Will he end up a lonely old man, like his uncle, the Duke of Windsor, one entry in whose diary reads, ‘Spent all day watching Wallis buy a hat.’?

The Church and Traditionis Custodes

If the situation of the duke is tragic, what can I say of the Church following the issuing of Traditionis Custodes? Part of me wanted to leap into the fray, bristling with historical and liturgical insights born of long and sustained study and practical experience, or so I would argue; but I wisely held off, realising I needed to think and pray more; and now I realise that it would be arrogant and sheer folly to seek to add to the discussion. Arrogant, because there are others more learned and eloquent to analyse the text, the pope’s intentions and the complexity of the historical background of the Mass in the West. Folly, because I know my temper is on a short string — social media and email make it easy for people to engage in ways I find rude or patronising — and I do not want to say something I later regret or cannot put right.

Liturgy matters immensely to me, of course it does, but the way in which, by and large, discussion has been conducted has been deeply troubling. To speak of God and the things of God with hatred and contempt in one’s heart is not right. It is irreverence of the most terrible kind. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity within the Church, and the only way for any of us to approach it, metaphorically speaking, is on our knees. Bad or inadequate history, personal preference, fear of the unknown, they can blind us to the significance of words and actions and we can destroy what we most long to flourish. We forget, a little too readily, that every human being is entitled to respect and to his/her good name. Insults and accusations are not helpful.

This morning, therefore, I am praying for all families, natural and institutional, experiencing discord. Often it is a grandparent who sees most clearly and is best at binding up the wounds that are tearing everyone within apart. Let us ask the prayers of Saints Joachim and Anne to heal the divisions we experience and to give those of us who are older something of their grace and compassion, that we may meet every new challenge with wisdom and kindness.

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Unlikely Friendship? The Case of St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent by Pedro de Mena
By Nicolás Pérez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10226663

St Mary Magdalene and Some Women of Our Own Day who Attract a Negative Press

During one of our recent long, hot, sticky nights I found myself thinking about the hostility of the Taliban to the education of women and girls, and what that might mean for the people of Afghanistan and wherever the Taliban hold influence. From there it was a short step to considering the antipathy many in the West have shown towards Malala, Greta Thunberg or, in a completely different sphere, Emma Raducano. It would be wrong to say the aggressive and belittling remarks they have had to endure are the monopoly of a few middle-aged men (I can certainly point to some really nasty comments by women), but middle-aged men do seem to have been peculiarly irritated by them. For me, that helps to explain the Church’s long-standing awkwardness about Mary Magdalene and the ambivalence in some circles about her being officially proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and her liturgical commemoration being raised to the dignity of a feast. As to her friendship with Jesus, I quite see why, for some, that is beyond the pale. She is too clingy, too feminine — despite being as tough as they come.

How We Like Our Saints To Be

Is it as simple as saying most men (and many women) don’t like smart women, and clerical men feel happier if female saints are either on a pedestal of unassailable purity (e.g. Our Lady, St Thérèse of Lisieux) or can be dismissed as ‘no better than they should be’ and classed either as prostitutes (which St Mary Magdalene was not) or penitents, suggesting that there is something murky in the background? For every dozen men who have waxed lyrical about St Thérèse, for example, I doubt I have heard even one express warm, personal admiration for St Mary Magdalene. Is that why the thought of Jesus and Mary being such good friends as the gospels suggest has led some to speculate that there was a sexual relationship between them (for which there is no evidence) while others dismiss her as being somehow a fringe figure in Christian history (which is absurd). Then there are those who think that Mary Magdalene was more significant than Peter, and there is a huge conspiracy behind the hierarchy of the Church today — an attitude I find equally absurd on the same grounds as those who propose it: the evidence. The plain truth is that Jesus Christ saw in Mary something he did not see in Peter, James or John, something loving enough and steely enough to be entrusted with news of the resurrection — and he clearly enjoyed her company, as he enjoyed the company of his other disciples.

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my choice of Pedro de Mena’s sculpture to illustrate this post rather than the Fra Angelico or D. Werburg you might have been expecting. It shows Mary as penitent, the way she was viewed for so many centuries in the Church. I have always found it an arresting image and on every visit to Valladolid have always tried to make sure I see it. It proclaims a very important theological truth we are sometimes in danger of forgetting. None of us is without sin. We are all redeemed through God’s gracious action in Christ Jesus. We can concentrate on this aspect or that of a saint’s life, we can be inspired or sometimes the reverse, but we cannot escape the fact of sin. Mary of Magdalene is one of those saints who makes us confront this in ourselves and in others. We are seeing this sin, this sinfulness, in the way in which Traditionis Custodes is being discussed right now: sin has coiled itself round the holiest element of Catholic faith and practice, the celebration of the Eucharist.

We all know that the word eucharist means to give thanks. During two of my most recent hospitalisations, I came very close to dying. As I lay there, wondering if this was indeed to be the end of my earthly life, I found myself reflecting on the efforts people go to for the sake of their ‘legacy’. It didn’t take me long to decide that what I would like for my own legacy is fidelity to the Truth, kindness to others, and gratitude— above all, gratitude, because grace can only grow in a spirit of thanksgiving, and neither fidelity nor kindness is possible without grace. In the gospels St Mary Magdalene exemplifies all these qualities, with a richness of humanity I find immensely attractive. I think she makes a good patron for us still in via, don’t you?

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Be More Guinea Pig

On almost the hottest day of the year, a friend found herself chasing her children’s escaped guinea pigs under a hedge. It would be fair to say she has a modest opinion of their qualities as pets, but, loving all God’s creatures as she does, and meekly accepting that Mom will always have to care for them, she set off in pursuit. When we had stopped laughing at her account of her adventure, she concluded, ‘No one ever says, “Be More Guinea Pig”.’ O rash young friend, how could I resist such a challenge?

All the guinea pigs I’ve ever known have been kept as pets. I’ve never had to deal with any being used for research purposes or, worse still, eat one. To an untrained eye like mine, they are quiet, rather unexciting, just like most human beings, but they do have some characteristics we share. They are social creatures, thriving best in groups of two or more, but can easily show aggression. They can learn quite complex paths to food (just as well since they spend so much time eating) but are easily startled. They can suffer from ailments familiar to us, such as scurvy or asthma. The little happy hops they perform when excited are known as pop-corning and are delightfully uninhibited. But, ‘Be MoreGuinea Pig’? Where does that come in?

Be More Guinea Pig

Those of us living in England could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is making guinea pigs of us all, in the popular sense of that phrase, as it lifts the legal restrictions used hitherto as a defence against the spread of COVID-19. No one can predict whether it will be a success or disaster. ‘Freedom Day’ may end up making lemmings of us all, hurtling over a cliff we knew was there but believed would not be a danger to us. It is to be hoped that individuals will not be reckless but give thought to how best to keep themselves and other people safe. For Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. The Rule urges us to do what is better for another, which reflects the gospel precept to love our neighbour. Whether guinea pigs can be said to love their fellow guinea pigs, I would not dare to say; but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

There is another side to guinea pigs that has impressed me more and more over the week-end. The guinea pig’s primary method of communication with other guinea pigs is via a complex series of vocalizations. If you look at the list of those given in Wikipedia, they are not language as we understand the term, but most of them seem to be positive. It has grieved me beyond measure that so much of the discussion of Traditionis Custodes has been fundamentally irreverent and negative. To speak of God and the things of God with hatred and contempt in one’s heart is not godly, no matter how ‘justified’ one may think oneself — and that applies to both liberals and conservatives. I hope later this week to share some of my own reflections on the document, but I am not ready yet. Knee-jerk reactions, a rush to let off fireworks, to curry favour with one ‘side’ or another, no, they are not for me.* Guinea pigs are more reflective animals. Be more Guinea Pig. Please.

*I won’t publish comments that try to kidnap the argument of this post into pro or anti Traditionis Custodes tirades.

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A Sick Society and RB 36?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

St Benedict’s View of Sickness

Blue gloves and face coverings are now so familiar in the West, we have almost forgotten what they symbolize. They say we are sick, as indeed we probably are, but with a sickness that goes beyond the physical. All I have written in the past about RB 36 and Care of the Sick (and I have written a great deal as a quick search of this blog will reveal) has tended to concentrate on an analysis of the text and our movement from giving care to receiving care. This morning, however, as we re-read the chapter, I was struck by how clear and uncompromising Benedict is about what we owe each other.

Care of the sick comes above and before everything else, ante omnia et super omnia, no matter how good, holy, apparently necessary or advantageous anything else may be. In the light of the very mixed signals coming from the U.K. government, that is worth thinking about. Politicians and civil servants may be confused; economists may be reluctant to concede that striving for growth is not always appropriate; and scientists will continue to argue, as scientists should, about the best way to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of respiratory and other viruses following in its wake. For the majority of us, the response will be more personal and individual.

Concerns about Current Attitudes

I am not alone in feeling uneasy about the ‘dog-in-the-manger’ attitude many Western countries have shown regarding sharing anti-COVID vaccines with poorer nations. In the same way, I find quite alarming the readiness of some heads of state to sacrifice the health and lives of the people they were elected to serve to frankly loopy ideas of their own that lead to much suffering and loss. But it is not an easy question to solve at national/international level.

At a personal level, it is much simpler. Like it or not, we have a duty of care towards others and that includes being prepared to sacrifice a personal good for a greater social good. As you might expect, given my respiratory vulnerability, the prospect of ‘Freedom Day’ does not fill me with unalloyed joy. Until now, I have regularly worn a mask to protect others and have been irritated by workmen and others who refuse to wear one inside our house — only a few, but enough to remark upon. I suspect even more will refuse after 19 July, especially those who take their ideas of right and wrong from what is allowed by the law, i.e. if it is not a criminal or civil offence, it is alright.

Serving Christ

A Benedictine would say we serve Christ in the person of the sick. What is often overlooked is that the sick serve Christ in the person of the well. For the one doing the caring, it is a case of being alert to the needs of the sick person and being patient with them; for the sick it is a case of not being over-demanding, of allowing the carer to serve — hard as that may seem at times! Where, I think, both come together, is in their response to the moral dimension of sickness. There is a lot going on about healthcare in the UK, a lot that tugs at our understanding. I don’t pretend to have any answers, only questions gradually taking shape. It would be good if you would share yours — without blaming or party-political ranting, please.

The Rule of St Benedict in English for 15 July, RB 36, On Sick Brethren

RB36
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Kitchen Work

Tomatoes for the Table

It is strange how, in the past and perhaps even today, certain kinds of work are regarded as menial and the people who do them as inferior. I remember some sort of gathering at which a Swedish nun and I were introduced to someone as the monastery’s cooks. The person to whom we were introduced couldn’t move away quickly enough but seemed to think better of it once she learned more about our backgrounds. It was then our turn to be a little reserved.

St Benedict in his chapter on the monastery’s kitcheners (RB 35), which we begin re-reading today, not only assumes everyone who can will take their turn at cooking and serving but also that such service increases charity in a community and secures a richer reward for the individual. Our competence is secondary, though that can be difficult to accept. Even culinary disasters (I’ve perpetrated a few myself) can be an occasion of grace, not just Gaviscon.

Why do we think of some work as important and other work as inconsequential? I don’t know, but I have a hunch it has to do with our endless status-seeking. The boss of an organisation probably has the most expensive computer, even if he/she uses it least. It tells other people how important they are to the organization and reassures them that their status is assured. We all have to eat, so unless we are a celebrity cook, work in the kitchen attracts no kudos. Forgive me for being boring and predictable, but how many people are we relying on today to do work we couldn’t or wouldn’t do for ourselves? Let us be grateful for them.

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Owning the Ugliness and Imperfection of Life

During my most recent hospital stay (yes, there have been rather a lot lately), I found myself devoid of energy, tethered to a 24/7 drip, with an oxygen supply on a short cord and, ultimate indignity, catheterized. My eyes blurred and, despite having access to hundreds of books on my ‘phone, it was several days before my joy in reading returned. People could not have been kinder or more considerate. Despite being under enormous pressure, the hospital staff sorted me out (take another bow, Hereford County Hospital), fed me, helped me wash, and were endlessly patient, while the hospital chaplain anointed me and gave me Holy Communion for a journey I was destined not to make just then.

I’ve been home for almost a week now. You might think that my being a nun obliges me to relentless optimism, to being upbeat in every situation. If you do, you know nothing about being a nun! While I was being looked after in every sense of the word, others were experiencing a whole gamut of negative emotions and events. Even I, in my fortunate situation, found things to criticize or grumble at, and it is fundamentally dishonest to pretend otherwise.

For instance, while I sat back and thought about the next meal (salad. Ed), Anglican friends were sharing openly their feelings about Vision and Strategy and some ill-considered comments seeming to misprize the value of a professional clergy; others were beating their breasts as revelation followed revelation of corruption and deliberate attempts to deceive. Friends confided concerns about attacks on their families or on themselves personally, and more than one admitted to serious money worries or strains on their marriage/partnership. We don’t smile bravely through these things. There are times when sharing the pain, acknowledging our own helplessness, being floored by it all, is the only human response and none of us should be ashamed of that. There is just one little caveat I think worth mentioning because I have caught myself indulging in the behaviour involved: moral distancing of a self-serving nature.

We talk disparagingly about ‘this government’ as though we had no part in its election or shaping the climate of opinion in which a political party can be elected. We declare so-and-so cannot be Catholic because he/she does not conform to our idea of what a Catholic should be, as though we were the arbiter of all things and could speak for God. So it goes on. We heap derision on those whose minds are slower or whose values differ from our own. In other words, we wrap ourselves round with a false but comforting sense of superiority which we wouldn’t if we recognized it for what it truly is: a refusal to own the ugliness and imperfection of life in which we share as much as we do in its beauty and holiness.

I don’t like leaving a post with a negative thought, so may I suggest a good exercise for today would be to give thanks for the blessings we enjoy and asking the grace of humility, of being grounded in truth and holiness? We cannot and should not be upbeat all the time. We are called to be human, and that means allowing the reality of our own experience and that of other people to register with us. As the late Bro Duncan PBGV used to say in his simple way, ‘Be more dog.’ Don’t complicate things with ideas that get in the way of truth; don’t pretend, but do your best to follow the Lord, who knew what it was to be tired, misunderstood, at odds with those he loved. We surely cannot be better than he was and is.

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Dying Can be a Lonely Business

I am well aware that I myself may not have very much time on earth left. Death itself does not worry me, but I must admit that the process of dying does because I suspect it will involve facing my worst fear — not being able to breathe. I am sure many people can identify with that or have some other deep-seated fear that may be difficult to put into words.

Preparing for Death

We who know death is drawing closer tend to fret about arrangements, ensuring those we love are properly looked after or suffer as little inconvenience as possible, knowing full well that nothing ever works out quite as planned. We realise, probably too late, that procrastination in some matters was really rather silly but are too weak or too sick to do anything about it. Then there are our friends. Those closest to us tend to be reticent, not knowing what to do or say but keeping their distance to allow us time to get on with things. Others want daily updates and bombard us with ‘How are you today?’ messages which make the heart sink because there is no energy to respond and, anyway, what do we say? Others again want to deny the reality of the situation and pretend we are going to get better. At least in the monastery we don’t have to do that! The trouble is, preparing for death isn’t quite the same as preparing for dying, and that is where I think the confusion, and sometimes disappointment, arise.

Prayer for the Dying

The experience I am now going through has confirmed me in my view that the prayer we offer for the sick is the prayer they would offer themselves, were they not sick. It is not so much a prayer to get better as adoration, love, praise, intercession for others. Prayer for the dying, I think, is slightly different. Dying can be a lonely business. We do not want to burden others, but there are moments when we would like to talk a little or prepare sacramentally in a way that COVID-19 has made more difficult. I am fortunate in that I have a monk on standby, so to say, who has promised to come whatever the day or hour to give me the Last Sacraments. There are many more who do not have such an assurance. I am convinced that prayer for the dying asks more of us than a glancing reference in the Hail Mary.

I would suggest that prayer for the dying is a very simple prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. That is to say, it is a prayer for light, strength and a making good of whatever may have gone wrong in the dying person’s life, and for those supporting them in their last days. In the case of the dying it is not the injuries done to ourselves that we grieve for but those we have done to others, many of whom will now be beyond the scope of apology or reconciliation. These can cause a deep anguish that cannot easily be expressed. In the case of carers, there are so many contradictory emotions to go through, from exhaustion to feeling ‘guilty’ that we have not done enough.

Our prayer for the dying therefore, by its very nature, must be ongoing. I myself may have days, weeks, even months, left: who knows? Nor do I know the extent of the demands I may make on others. But during sleepless nights or when everything seems black or hopeless, it is a consolation to know that someone is praying, that I face this last and most uncertain journey in the company of others, and those I care about, those looking after me, are likewise prayed for. The loneliness of dying is lessened and there is the bright hope of eternity somewhere over the horizon. Please join me in praying for all who are dying at this time, and for those caring for them.

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Too Woke for our Own Good?

Every time I read of the latest manifestation of ‘wokeness’, I am inclined to groan and pass on to something more interesting. It seems but a short step from ‘wokeness’ to ‘cancelling’, and both strike me as being absurd. Should we spend time even thinking about them?

If an American citizen wants to remove a portrait of the Queen from an M.C.R., I merely ask myself if she will achieve as much in her lifetime as Elizabeth II. If 150 dons decide that they will not teach anyone from Oriel unless the Fellows remove a statue of Rhodes, I simply lament the intellectual and moral cowardice, as I see it, of those who believe in silencing others rather than engaging in proper debate. In such cases, I might even go so far as to sing the merits of the Little Place in the Fens, although it certainly doesn’t have a faultless record.

What, however, I’m forced to acknowledge is the power of sign and symbol, and the ambiguity of many of those in current use. For example, ‘taking the knee’ as a protest against racism causes me no difficulty, even if some of those using it are doing so without any great depth of conviction (who can tell?). It is a beautiful gesture, taken from Byzantine court ritual and subsequently incorporated into Christian worship. If, however, it is used to identify with the political aims of the BLM movement, I find that much more troubling.

There is no need to multiply examples. When the G7 summit opens tomorrow, one of the challenges the leaders will face is the different way in which they express and interpret values and motivation. Let us pray they are not too woke for their own (and our) good but achieve something of substance for us all.

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Friendship with God

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

It seems no time at all since we were thinking about ourselves as straying sheep (fourth Sunday of Easter), now here we are, on the sixth Sunday of Easter, invited to consider ourselves friends of God — if we obey his commandments (cf John 15. 9-17).

I wonder whether we really take on board what that means. We can probably quote a whole series of edifying lines taken from the saints, such as Aelred’s Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship’, but it is our homely English word ‘friend’, with its connotations of mutual affection, equality, freedom and trust that gets to the heart of the matter. Who would ever dream of any kind of ‘equality’ with God? In one sense, it is absolute nonsense. But when John puts onto the lips of Jesus those astonishing words ‘You are my friends . . . ‘ we must take notice.

In a few days we shall celebrate the Ascension and, a few days after that, Pentecost. Our role and responsibility as disciples is growing. We are not to be merely followers, we must become active collaborators; and we can only do that insofar as we have taken on the lineaments of friendship with God. Becoming friends takes time. Those often apparently wasted hours reading and praying are part of the process; so, too, are what I call the blank times, when we are so bound up in grief or sickness or some other negative experience that we do not see what the Lord is doing, or we try to limit Him because we feel obliged to limit ourselves.

The rather cheeky photo I chose to illustrate this post is a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, not to insist that we must be x or y before God can love us. He loves us as we are and wants to be friends with us now. That doesn’t mean we can go on being horrible to everyone or leading a sinful life. On the contrary, friendship with God is bound up with conversion and obeying his commandments. We change because we want to be friends with him. But let us not forget that we are meant to find joy in our friendship with God and, even more, his friendship with us.

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On Being Unable to Breathe

Breathlessness is something I know a little about, having lived several years with advanced sarcoidosis and metastatic leiomyosarcoma in my lungs, but even so, the horror of what COVID-19 sufferers without access to oxygen are going through is beyond me. Every photo of someone in India or Brazil struggling to breathe makes me think how scared they must be, how helpless their family, friends and medical team (if they are lucky enough to have one) must feel, and how outrageous it is that we were all so unprepared.

Breathlessness of the kind experienced by those with bad COVID-19 is not some transient feeling of being puffed. It is more like an inner suffocation that makes movement, speech, all the things we take for granted, well nigh impossible. It is exhausting and relentless.* We read that Western countries are sending various kinds of aid, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators. I regularly use the one and pray I am never put on the other (if you know anything about ventilators, you will know why). What troubles me this morning, however, is the thought that the oxygen concentrators are unlikely to produce enough flow to be of any substantive help. Those with COVID-19 will go on suffering, their symptoms barely alleviated. Unless we have had COVID-19 ourselves or have had an analogous experience, e.g. a bad asthma attack, we won’t really understand, no matter how hard we try.

I do not know what we as individuals can do other than speak to our governments and donate to aid agencies, but both the situation in India and the rows about vaccines have highlighted the simple truth that we are one world, dependent on one another. Selfishness and generosity seem to go hand in hand among us, and no one has a monopoly on folly, but perhaps we need to reflect on what it means not to be able to breathe — not only in the obvious, physical sense, but also in the less obvious moral and ethical sense. Are we suffocating ourselves by shrugging off the sense of interconnectedness we ought to have? ‘Gesture aid’ is very like virtue-signalling: well-meant, but inadequate except as a way of easing our own conscience. It may sound over-dramatic but today the suffering Christ is to be found in a thousand places, in streets where people are dying for lack of air and an inability to breathe. That matters; so does our response.

* I have relied on the description given by someone who had COVID-19 badly. It sounds very like what those with serious lung disease experience, but worse.

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