One of the joys of my return from hospital has been seeing the changes in the garden, albeit viewing them from a safe distance indoors. Daffodils, especially wild daffodils (the Lenten Lilies of the title), remind me of some of the ambiguities of Laetare or Mothering Sunday.
We celebrate today as a feast of joy and motherhood, sometimes descending into sentimentality, sometimes becoming so abstract that we forget that actual motherhood is hard work — frequently, smelly and tiring. The token bunch of daffs dutifully handed over to Mum may be exactly that: tokenism, but sincerely meant and with a beautiful face to it. However, to see the Church as Mother, which is what the Church herself invites us to do, is, I think, increasingly difficult because so many have experienced hurt at her hands. There is no token bunch of daffs that will quite bridge the gap between expectation and reality. Is there any way to make sense of this?
I find my own answer in the garden. The wild daffodils I like so much are planted in soil. They grow out of the Herefordshire mud and loam. For most of the year they are unseen, lying deep in the earth. They bloom briefly yet brilliantly. So with the Church. She is flawed because she is made up of flawed creatures like you and me, but she is also shot through with grace, with truly infinite possibilities we may see only rarely. She shares in the muckiness of ordinary motherhood, as she also shares its glories.
Today, let us pray for all mothers, living or dead, for those who feel they’ve failed, those who don’t understand the concept of motherhood, those who need to be set free, and for our mother the Church.
Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, is about forgiveness — something we all find difficult, especially if we try to forgive others in our own strength or think of it as a once-for-all process. It becomes even harder when we hear Jesus telling us that it is not those who have offended us we most need reconciliation with but those who have something against us. Forgiveness is clearly both simpler and more complicated than we might have thought, but there is no escaping it. We live by the mercy of God and that mercy is to be shared with others.
Yesterday, in a different and much sadder context, I was introduced to the concept of the Chuckit List. It is rather like a Bucket List in reverse: not a list of things we want to do or acquire, but a list of things we can let go. May I suggest that we each think about our own Chuckit List — of grudges, resentments, quarrels, prejudices, misunderstandings, estrangements — and resolve to let them go. In setting others free, we are ourselves liberated; and it is never too late to learn that lesson.
I hope my friend Elizabeth Scalia will not think I am borrowing too much from her excellent Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, but today’s first Mass reading, Deuteronomy 30. 15–20 made me think again about the idols we construct for ourselves and how they bar the way to God. It is not only, or even predominantly, the obviously bad things that lead us astray. Most of us agree that violence, selfishness, greed and so on are not the way to holiness and closeness to the Lord. The temptations of essentially good people are often ‘good’ themselves. I wonder how many people have woken up this morning determined to tackle a Lenten programme of self-improvement that would make a Desert Father wilt!
The clue, of course, is in the phrase ‘self-improvement’. Sometimes what we elect to do during Lent is about us, not God. Ash Thursday is a good day for taking a second look at what we have decided to do or not do during Lent. If what we are offering up places burdens on others (because we are tetchy or demanding) or is a covert form of achieving a secondary aim (e.g. mistaking dieting for fasting), then we need to re-think. The sole purpose of our Lenten observance is to draw us closer to Christ. That both simplifies and makes more joyful our pilgrimage to Easter, but it also requires us to let go some of our own ideas about what would be best. Smashing those false gods may be our first step on the way.
Usually on this Sunday (formerly Septuagesima) I begin a series of posts about preparing for Lent. I’ll probably still write something over the coming weeks, but there is a lot of material already on this blog. If interested, please do a search using such terms as ‘penance’, ‘Lent’, ‘prayer’, ‘almsgiving’, ‘fasting’, ‘Lent books’ and so on. I’ll let you know our plans for sharing Lenten reading a little later. This morning, however, I want to make a very simple plea, addressed in the first place to my fellow Catholics but applicable to all persons of goodwill.
Please, please, please THINK before launching attacks on others in social media and elsewhere. Debate is good and often leads to fresh insights; wit and humour can lighten the mood; but name-calling, condemning others because they hold views we don’t share (as opposed to challenging those views with careful argument), hurling insults and threats, these have no place in our life online or off. They diminish us, they make a mockery of what we profess to believe and ultimately, I think, they increase the store of anger and evil in the world.
Recently, there has been an explosion of bad-tempered comments on Twitter and Facebook that have left me wondering whether people really believe what they say they believe. I had thought that the exodus of some people from both platforms following the inauguration of President Biden would lead to a calmer, more thoughtful exchange of views, but I have been disappointed in my hope. Neither ‘Catholic Twitter’ nor ‘Catholic Facebook’ is a very pleasant place to be at times.
I daresay some will regard my plea for more considerate behaviour as akin to the bleating of a well-meaning sheep, but when one’s expected lifespan is short, one realises that some of our so-called values can be turned on their head. Many of us will never achieve anything very great in this life. We will certainly never batter others into believing as we do or acting as we think they ought, but the way in which we engage with other people will be remembered and may have a profound effect. Jesus could be straight-talking, but he was never rude, never dismissive. He was always ready to explain and encourage. Even when he drove the money-changers out of the temple or questioned the motives of those setting a trap for him, he turned such events into an opportunity for teaching. We are not Jesus, but perhaps if we saw Jesus in other people as we profess to do, we would be more like him and act accordingly. And that, I maintain, really would change the world.
Yesterday we heard that UK deaths from COVID-19 had reached 100,000 +. Today we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day and remember the millions of Jews who died in the concentration camps and death camps of the Nazi era. What sadness, what an ocean of tears! Statistics have a way of appearing inhuman, yet we know that every figure represents a human person, an individual, infinitely loved by God, tenderly loved by family and friends, and we feel helpless in the face of so much suffering and anguish. It is good that we should. If we did not feel pain, would we ever know compassion? Would we ever try to make things better for others?
I have often thought about my mother who, when I was young, paid a weekly visit to someone I’ll call Hedwig — a survivor of Nazi ‘experimentation’, who led a sad and lonely life, consumed by fear, all her possessions gathered into a few carrier bags. My mother wasn’t a ‘do-gooder’, nor was she motivated by religion or any ‘ism’. She knew what it was to grieve (she lost two brothers during World War II) and she knew that Hedwig grieved the loss of everyone and everything familiar to her, so she did what she could to reassure her that she was both loved and lovable. I hope her sympathy and interest made life a little better for Hedwig. I know it did for me. Go figure, as they say.
Sometimes, I think the fire has gone out of our quest for Christian unity. To some people, it will always matter a great deal. The married couples who long to share Communion together, for example, or those who have been involved in ecumenical endeavours all their adult lives, will probably be more urgent in their desire to see some form of unity given official recognition than those who are happy being Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Free Church or whatever and make a point of concentrating on the commonalities of our Christian faith rather than what divides us. On the whole, I agree; what already unites us is amazing. Our baptism, our sharing of the scriptures, our life in Christ — these are not small things. But being an English Catholic does make one acutely aware of some of the differences and I am wondering whether we need to reconsider them if we are to advance towards a greater degree of unity than we enjoy at present.
An English Catholic Perspective In England, Catholics are a minority; some still suggest that there is an element of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about us, or that we are socially and educationally an inferior breed. Partly that is a consequence of the Church of England being the Established Church and the indigenous Catholic population having been swelled over the years by successive waves of immigration from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Africa, India and so on. I think it also reflects the fact that, from an English perspective, ecumenism is predominantly about Anglicans and Catholics or Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists, whereas Rome’s eyes are focused on Orthodoxy. It is easy to conclude that because the Churches in England use many of the same words and ceremonies, we believe the same things. The fact is, we don’t; but we aren’t always honest about it. I was thinking this morning of one dear friend — an Anglican priest — who will tell you quite openly that theologically we are sometimes miles apart, but that does not get in the way of our friendship or our essential unity in Christ. It does, however, mean that there must be a constant effort to understand the other’s position. That requires honesty and trust and the willingness to give the process time. Both she and I have learned a lot from each other over the years, and I think that is how ecumenism grows: through seeking understanding, mutual trust, and the conviction that it is worthwhile.
Parallels Between Politics and Ecumenism I think there is an interesting parallel between what has been happening in the U.S.A. recently and the way we often approach ecumenism. Some Catholics believe the best way of promoting pro-life policies in the U.S.A. is to condemn President Biden and demand his excommunication, to force him to change his public policy on abortion. As far as I can see, the same Catholics are not always so vocal about the need to convince others of the truth of their position, that all life is sacred, nor are they always so ready to provide the material and emotional support people need if they are to reject abortion (I write this as someone opposed to abortion and, before I became a nun, deeply involved in the Life movement). We never convince by condemning. We never spread the gospel by hatred. We can never force people to believe. Just as I think a pro-life stance requires thinking deeply, often painfully, about capital punishment, healthcare, gun control, social welfare and the like, so I think Christian unity can only be achieved if we are ready to have our own truths examined and to approach others in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. By that I don’t mean some theatrical apology for the sins of our fathers in which we had no share but forgiveness for the little pockets of resentment and distrust most of us will uncover in ourselves if we look hard enough. It is only when we can be honest about how our own beliefs have been shaped that we can get down to the serious business of exploring what we believe and why, of being truly open to the other. Ecumenism doesn’t mean watering down: it means taking fire of the Holy Spirit. And that can lead to some surprising upsets and transformations.
A few of you know how I have longed to be able to quote that phrase legitimately, and now I can — in part. When Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court Judge, told a stage 4 cancer patient that her life was ‘less valuable’ than that of others, I assume he was thinking of legal remedy: younger lives are valued more highly. Unfortunately for him, his remark, uttered in the context of a debate about lockdown restrictions (which he is known to oppose), gave the impression that he was talking more generally. Is one life more valuable than another? That is a very slippery slope down which to travel but there are many racing along it. The old, the sick, those born with physical or mental disabilities, people society rejects as dangerous or beyond redemption, we have cures for all these: abortion, euthanasia, judicial execution and some questionable forms of ‘drug therapy’ in between.
How refreshing, therefore, to begin re-reading chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict today, on The Tools of Good Works. The first tool Benedict lists is to love God. The second is not to commit murder (he knew his monks!). Today’s section ends with ‘To prefer nothing whatever to the love of Christ.’ I don’t think any of us could read that passage and come away with anything other than the conviction that whatever God has made is good and beautiful, even if their goodness and beauty is hidden from us. We know we shall never look at anyone God has not first looked at with love. Our human law may be an ass at times but the law of God cuts straight through to what really matters, our existence in Christ. You are valuable. I am valuable. And the scale on which our value is to be measured is not one we can compute.
A lot has been written about physical and mental health and the impact COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have had, and continue to have, on both. We are too deeply involved in the present crisis to be able to see with any real clarity the long-term consequences, but there is a general awareness that the prospects for many people have worsened. That is not just because delayed or cancelled treatment leads to poorer health outcomes but because lockdown, for example, has also meant poorer living conditions, loneliness and emotional stress, not to mention the mounting evidence of increased domestic violence and abuse. Add to that concerns over the impact on children and young people of the effect on their education and it is easy to see why many are worried about the future physical and mental health of the nation.
Spiritual Health in Time of COVID
Churches and other religious organizations have done their best to minister to the spiritual needs of their members. Some, like the Irish priest who devised an imaginative and truly pastoral response to the question of First Holy Communion, or the lay groups that have maintained a sense of community by keeping in touch via online and telephone meetings, have shown real creativity in their response to a complex situation. Others have settled for live-streamed worship, podcasts, vodcasts and experimented with other ways of reaching out to people as time, energy and resources permitted.
Moral Health in Time of COVID
What I am not sure many people, other than a few philosophers, have been thinking about is what I call our moral health. By that I mean how we, both as individuals and as a society, act ethically and with moral purpose in a confused and confusing situation such as a pandemic, and the consequences for us and our sense of right or wrong conduct. We have all read of instances of people behaving with courage and generosity, looking out for others and performing acts of unexpected kindness. We have also read of people behaving selfishly and putting others at risk. What are the principles at work here, and how far is the Government, the Churches or any other body responsible for setting the tone? Is the moral health of the nation to be identified with that of individuals, or does it have a larger existence?
Those familiar with Catholic Social Teaching will be able to guess to which side of that last question I myself lean. It does concern me when people say, ‘When everything gets back to normal, then I’ll do so and so.’ The situation we find ourselves in may not be familiar, but it is the current ‘normal’ and therefore precisely the one in which we must act as moral beings. How we apply injunctions to be truthful, charitable, generous, is therefore a matter of moment. I have a hunch that the privatisation of our lives — working from home, not travelling so much and having far less social contact with others outside our chosen spheres — has meant that most of us are living in a moral space less challenged by difference than it used to be. Here in this part of Herefordshire, for example, we rarely meet anyone who isn’t white or from a rural, probably local, background. I don’t think I’ve met anyone here who isn’t either a Christian of some sort or an agnostic or atheist. Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs belong to the wider world I used to know — they are not on my doorstep. Social media used to provide another window on the world, so to say, but recent changes in content moderation make one question whether that, too, is going to become even more of an ‘echo chamber’ for those of similar mind than it was. All this affects us, often more than we realise.
To take a concrete example. The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins on Monday, will present us with unique challenges this year. There can be no dutiful ‘shared worship’ of the type we held in the past, which let us off the hook of really engaging with one another. Our prayer and work for unity must be real, and working out how to do that is going to test all of us. We shall have to make choices, some of which will be hard; but they must be moral choices, that is to say, proceeding from principle and conviction. Some look to technology to provide a solution, perhaps forgetting that technology is a means to an end. How we use it matters. Why we use it matters. But it is what we actually do with it that matters most of all.
Hopefor our Moral Health
I am hopeful that our experience of pandemic will enable us to reflect on what we really value. I have said before that I hope it will lead to a deeper experience of God in prayer, to a fresh appreciation of family, friends and community and the many good things we encounter in our daily lives, plus a more profound sense of the interconnectedness of the world in which we live. I hope it will also lead to a strengthening of our moral health, our concern for one another, and our delight in trying to make things better for everyone. The world is not broken as it once was, but we may have failed to see how beautifully it has been repaired by the coming of Christ and the part we have to play in keeping its bonds strong. We tend to think of ourselves as clay, being moulded by the Potter. Maybe, just this once, we could identify with Christ himself, with that little line of gold purified in the furnace of experience and suffering but helping to hold together the vessel God has created, the world and everyone in it.
Today we begin re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel. I’ve often commented on it before but this morning I was struck by the fact that Benedict assumes goodwill in others. It seems obvious. Day to day, the monastic enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the community members. How else could it function? But when it comes to policy, to decisions about buildings or work or, whisper it gently, liturgy, there is more scope for less disinterested behaviour — I write as the survivor of many a chapter meeting where I had the feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed.
It is the apparently neutral ground, where we talk about one thing but seem to be busy about another, that makes the assumption of goodwill in others sometimes difficult. The bitter devisions in U.S.A. politics, the never-ending instances of incompetence and cronyism nearer home, are all rightly the subject of discussion and condemnation, but I wonder whether the situation would be as grave as it is were we able to assume goodwill in others.
Why are we reluctant to assume such goodwill? Is it that we fear to be thought naif? Or do we say, a little cynically, that we have been caught out before? As an outsider, I have found the presidential election in the U.S.A. and the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats baffling at times, never more so than when considering the behaviour of President Trump himself. An important element seems to be a reluctance to grant that it is possible for people to act in good faith in ways that we ourselves would not. That applies not just to politics but to most other areas of life as well.
Benedict reminds us that if we are to benefit from the wisdom and insights of others, we must be prepared to listen. Good ideas, good advice, can come from the most unlikely quarters. We may not like what we hear at first, so, like the abbot, we must think things over, give the matter time. But we start with that simplest and most difficult of acts: assuming goodwill in others.
A short post today, by way of contrast with yesterday’s. I have always had a soft spot for the saint we commemorate today, Hilary of Poitiers. His very name suggests cheerfulness, and though I daresay the Arians who suffered from his attempts to put them right were unenthusiastic about his efforts, Hilary has continued to be a beacon of sound learning and encouragement in the Church to the present. I think he was probably the best Latin writer of the fourth century (before Ambrose, that is). His daughter Abra became a sanctimonialis and is commonly regarded as a saint, while he did much to encourage Martin of Tours in his monastic enterprise; so, I owe him my gratitude. He endured exile graciously for the most part, and I can’t think of any instance of his blaming others for the difficulties he himself experienced. How different that is from our own times, when someone always has to be held responsible and made to pay — often literally.
Unfortunately, a desire for vengeance — which is what playing the blame game really is — does not always serve the purposes of justice. If one has not oneself suffered the injury another has experienced, it can seem wrong or unsympathetic to argue that the injured party should not be crying out for compensation of some kind. But perhaps that is what we have to do sometimes. Not every wrong can be put right by the payment of a wergild or the award of a sum of money, especially if demanded from those who have no connection with the original wrong-doing. I was thinking about this in the context of a number of recent claims against NHS hospital trusts and asking myself whether we have too easily assumed negligence when in actual fact a mistake has been made. We are all fallible, and I pity those who have to try to sort out the genuinely blame-worthy from those who are not. May they have the clarity of mind and warmth of heart of St Hilary himself.