A Spoonful of Sugar

Today is St Nicholas’s day, when, with a good conscience, we can rot our teeth with toffee and gingerbread, punch our opponents on the nose, and, provided we have all the necessary safeguarding measures in place, enjoy the company of children, exchange gifts, pray for seafarers and do good by stealth. If you haven’t a clue what I mean, or don’t ‘do’ irony, these posts may help:

St Nicholas and Santa Claus
Death in the North Sea

We tend to be serious about Advent, but not always in the right way, as some of the responses to yesterday’s post made clear to me. Yes, it is a time for concentrating on the coming of the Messiah, but it is also a time for recognizing that we are already living in the Messianic age. The plainness most of us adopt throughout this short season of preparation for Christmas isn’t meant to be gloomy or misanthropic, ‘penitential’ in the popular sense of the word. On the contrary, our penance should be life-enhancing. There should, ideally, be something of the rubicund Father Christmas/Santa Claus about it — a generosity of spirit and intention, even if we can’t manage material generosity. Not all of us can do that, nor should anyone be made to feel guilty about it; but we must beware of complacency. ‘I can’t’ is sometimes a pretext for ‘I won’t’.

In earlier posts about St Nicholas, I have stressed the importance of prayer. It is one thing we, as nuns, are committed to giving to the Church and to the world, and never has it been more necessary. Recently, I looked at the statistics for the number of abortions performed in England and Wales, the number of children living in poverty in the UK as a whole, the numbers officially ‘in care’ and those estimated to be surviving on hand-outs from food banks, despite the fact that their parents may be doing two or three jobs to try to keep themselves above the breadline. It was a shocking contrast to all the ads for consumer goods that marked Black Friday and continue to besiege us that we may have the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This morning the prayer of the community is for conversion of heart for us all: for St Nicholas to be honoured by more generous giving to children in need, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. If a rich country like the U.K. can tolerate such shameful inequality, such cruel indifference to children, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Our giving may be no more than a spoonful of sugar, but even one spoonful has the potential to make a huge difference. Try it.

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Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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Indifference and Advent

Yesterday Sarcoma UK published its report on the current state of this cancer in the UK. You can read it for yourself here: https://sarcoma.org.uk/news-events/loneliest-cancer. It is not sensationalist, nor does it whinge about lack of interest or funding, but it does explain why the charity has chosen to call sarcoma ‘The Loneliest Cancer’. I have a personal interest because I myself have metastatic leiomyosarcoma and know, from the inside as it were, what it feels like and how it affects one. This is not, however, a post about sarcoma as such, nor is it yet another contribution to the ‘my cancer and me’ genre. It is about indifference, and I am using the Sarcoma UK report as an illustration because I think it touches on a bigger question: what we do during Advent.

My Facebook followers have responded to my post about the charity’s report with their usual generosity and kindness, so have many of those who follow me on Twitter; but when, yesterday evening, I looked at the number of people who had noticed Sarcoma UK’s original twitter announcement or its subsequent repeats, I realised what an uphill struggle it will be to engage people’s interest. Can you imagine any other cancer charity’s ‘likes’ and retweets’ being for the most part in single figures/low twenties regarding such an important announcement ? True, we have an election coming on, and Black Friday deals always seem to appeal to the acquisitive in us, and there are a thousand and one other things clamouring for attention, but even those who proclaim a burning interest in health matters and the future of the NHS seem disinclined to press the ‘retweet’ button. Perhaps it will gain momentum as days pass. It certainly won’t be for any want of effort on the part of Sarcoma UK, nor for any lack of professionalism.

What does this apparent indifference say about the way in which we react to situations that do not make an impact on us personally? I’m confident that anyone affected by sarcoma, even at one remove by way of a family member or friend, will have some interest in the subject. I am equally sure that no one, confronted by a sick person in the flesh, would want to do anything other than be as considerate as possible. But some causes make no appeal to the imagination, do they, and perhaps this is one of them, or maybe it is just a case of sheer ignorance. Many years ago, when my sister organized special events for the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital Appeal, she remarked that sick children were probably the easiest of all causes for which to raise money. Others were much harder to win support for and had fewer ‘feel good’ factors, especially if they ran contrary to society’s current obsessions or were beyond the ken of most folk. 

During Advent, most of us will be thinking about almsgiving and giving time or money to good causes. We all have our favourites, but perhaps this year we could do a little more exploring. Instead of automatically supporting X or Y, we might think who really needs help urgently. There are literally hundreds of charities run on a shoe-string that support causes we may never have heard of, or that supply a need we did not know existed. It would be good if we could each find one that we judge worthy of support and do what we can to show we are not indifferent, and never can be, because of love for our Saviour. That would make our Advent special, and perhaps transform the lives of others. It would assuredly transform our own.

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Deciding How To Vote

In just over a fortnight, the people of the U.K. will be heading to the polls to cast their vote in a General Election. I suspect I speak for many when I say that we have had more than enough of promises, gimmicks, half-truths and evasions from party leaders and candidates. How we respond to them matters. There will always be those who vote according to long-cherished party loyalties; others who take a single issue and make it the substance of their evaluation of what is on offer; as well as those who dutifully wade through the party manifestos and try to work out which candidate best represents what they would like to see at Westminster. In the end, we all have to make a decision and accept responsibility for what we decide, bearing in mind that our decision will affect others, not just ourselves.

The social teaching of the Catholic Church is a help in setting the principles by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of the policies being considered, but applying them is rarely easy. I was thinking about this when I recalled the words of St Benedict about the election of an abbot, the consequences of a choice based on self-interest and the role of outsiders in scrutinizing and correcting whatever is amiss (cf RB 64. 3–6). It can be difficult to free ourselves from self-interest. A promise to improve healthcare is immensely attractive to the sick. A promise to improve eduction or do away with fees is very attractive to those in a certain age group. And when all this can apparently be done without raising tax or N.I contributions, it is more attractive still. The trouble is, we all know that it doesn’t work like that. Most of us are going to have to think long and hard, pray and make the most informed decision we can, knowing it won’t be perfect. We are fortunate that the election will take place during Advent, when the Church calls us to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s coming — when we are asked to be more just, more peaceful, more concerned about the welfare of others because we are preparing to welcome our Saviour afresh.

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Head Faith; Heart Faith; No Faith; Advent

One of the things that perplexes me is the relationship between what we might call ‘head faith’ — the articulation of belief variously referred to as doctrine or dogma  — and ‘heart faith’ — the principles by which we actually live, usually fewer in number and often very difficult to put into words. 

I am on record as saying that I think there is nothing more exciting than orthodox Catholicism, and I mean it. No theologian myself, I can claim to have read quite a lot of other people’s theology and have found it inspiring because of the light it throws on the mysteries of faith. Read Augustine’s De Trinitate with a little modern physics in mind and suddenly the Church’s teaching about the Blessed Trinity explodes into life. Even the most ‘difficult’ subjects prompt further efforts to understand, and one ends up on one’s knees, lost in adoration and wonder. But I would be the first to admit that this is ‘head faith’: exciting, stretching one’s mind, but not necessarily at the forefront of our practice of loving and serving the Lord. To take the example of the Blessed Trinity again, what I believe about the Trinity makes me read and pray but does not always translate into virtuous action. It does not make me kinder or more patient, nor do I think I will lie on my death-bed, if I am granted a death-bed, questioning whether my belief in the Trinity was accurate in all respects. I am much more likely to be worrying about my ‘heart faith’ — what I made of the opportunities given to me; how I lived my vocation as a Christian and, more specifically, as a Benedictine; how I treated other people created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, how I translated all that theological eloquence into discipleship.

Let me say at once that there is no opposition between ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’: both are necessary. Like Martha and Mary they represent different aspects of a single truth. I would never agree, for example, that it doesn’t really matter what we believe provided we have some generalised goodwill, nor that we can pick and choose among the doctrines of the Church and still call ourselves Catholic. That is one reason why I maintain that what we believe about the Church is more important than many recognize. I would always argue that unless we can say that we believe what the Church teaches is true, we are far from a Catholic understanding of ecclesiology. But that isn’t what determines most of my everyday conduct. That comes from much simpler streams, and possibly yours does also. 

I think trying to be loving and merciful is a better indicator of how far we are willing to co-operate with grace than, say, making barbed comments about what we see as deficiencies in the faith of others. So, for example, slandering or libelling the pope, Cardinal Burke, or whomever we disagree with or simply dislike, is a rather risky undertaking. It sets us up in judgement on those who may, in fact, be more pleasing to God than we are ourselves. It can easily lead to the bitter zeal against which St Benedict warns in RB 72. The trouble is, once we are infected with it, we lose the ability to see clearly and tend to plunge deeper and deeper into anger and bitterness. Again, I stress that trying to be loving and merciful doesn’t mean that we adopt an ‘anything goes’ approach to Christian living, but I do believe that more people are drawn to Christianity by example than are argued into it. If we have got into the habit of condemning the sins or shortcomings of of others, isn’t it time we took a look in the mirror? We may not like what we see; is it any wonder that others don’t, either? And how does God see us? 

Matters can get worse. When we abandon ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’ and regard ourselves as the arbiters of all things we fall into ‘no faith’. I am not talking here of agnostics or atheists but of those who would still say they are Christians but whose lives and attitudes proclaim that they are so in name only. It is much commoner than might be supposed, but we tend to be blind to it in ourselves and only notice it in others. 

‘No faith’ begins with a falling off from prayer but the danger isn’t always obvious: we are too busy doing good works, championing good causes, fussing about details of the liturgy or church furnishings (all good things in themselves) to waste time with God; and, if we don’t waste time with God, we’ll never really get to know him. The next stage is to give up reading. We know scripture pretty well, don’t we, and as to those dull tomes of theology, they are too dry to be of use to anyone, aren’t they? And when we have given up prayer and reading, when we no longer think deeply about what we believe, the Christian community becomes a kind of optional extra. Why bother to go to Mass and endure an uninspiring liturgy in a cold and draughty church that is inhabited by people even more cantankerous than we are? We go on for a while, but there are better things to do with our time. Gradually, ‘no faith’ becomes our default mode, and we become just one more statistic, one more person in whom the light of Christ is almost extinguished.

Why am I saying this now? Soon we shall begin Advent, a time of renewed preparation for the coming of the Lord. In the West it coincides with a season of lavish spending and self-indulgence, making it difficult to concentrate on what Advent is really about. For those who desire to follow Christ, however, Advent provides an opportunity to look at our lives afresh and see what we need to change to welcome him more fully into our lives. It isn’t a penitential season in the way that Lent is a penitential season, but many people prefer to give up chocolate or make some small sacrifice of something or other rather than address the really big things, the things that are obstacles to grace. May I suggest it would be useful to start thinking about Advent now, before the parties and the present-buying begin in earnest? The sketches I have given of ‘head faith’, ‘heart faith’ and ‘no faith’ may not speak to you, but I hope they may suggest a new line to take, a way of thinking about Advent that hadn’t occurred to you before. With the prophet Isaiah, we must prepare a way for the Lord in the desert of our hearts and not be surprised if we find a few stones and other obstacles en route.

One further thought. Every night at Compline we review the events of the day that is past. I have always found the words of the psalmist, ‘My every desire is before thee,’ a good way of taking stock. What have I wanted; what do I want? How does it measure up to what I believe, in my head and in my heart, and how has it influenced or determined what I have done?

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Was St Benedict an Elitist?

St Benedict ends chapter 38 of his Rule, On the Reader for the Week, with the statement that the brethren are not to sing or read according to rank but according to the edification they give their hearers (RB 38.12). To some, this presents no difficulty. St Benedict had a sensitive ear and merely wished to ensure competence among those who perform some public office in choir or refectory. Others are more squeamish. We live in a world where we play down differences for fear of wounding others or stifling their talents. At the same time, we are aware that inequality is growing. Usually, we measure this in terms of inequalities of wealth or access to some perceived good such as nutrition or healthcare. The difficulty comes when we are confronted, as Benedict was, by inequalities of ability that are innate. For example, I am not much of a singer; my monastic ‘twin,’ who entered the monastery at the same time as I did, had a glorious voice which had been expertly trained. Only an idiot, or someone with a tin ear, would have preferred my singing to hers, and thankfully, as far as I am concerned, nobody did.

Not everyone would agree that that was a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly understandable situation. We still tend to assume that elitism of any kind is bad. I certainly agree that inequalities of wealth and power have a very dangerous side to them, and I reject completely the sense of entitlement many of the rich and powerful assume. There is nothing nastier than seeing someone treat others as rubbish. But I do question whether we sometimes condemn what we see as elitism because we lack the generosity to celebrate the giftedness of others. St Benedict was wise enough and kind enough to regard every monk in his community as infinitely precious to God, no matter what his shortcomings as an individual. But he didn’t allow that to interfere with a very sound judgement about an individual’s suitability for the task in hand. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us, monastic or not.

St Gertrude
if you are looking for a post on St Gertrude, try this: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/11/17/st-gertrude-the-catholic-church-and-women/

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Aftermaths and Consequences

Yesterday we bade a temporary farewell to the builders who have been doing repairs to the monastery. There is a huge amount of cleaning, touching up of paintwork and other tasks to be done, but we assure ourselves it will all be worthwhile in the end. What we are faced with is merely the aftermath or consequence of their efforts. Some, alas, are unintended, like discovering that moths have eaten so much of the calefactory floor covering that it will have to be replaced, but that is by the way. The important lesson is that any activity, any task, involves more than may appear on the surface. Aftermaths and consequences matter.

It is easy to talk about such things in the context of house repairs, political events like elections, or institutional or personal crises; but I wonder how often we apply the idea to our own lives and think about the impact we have on others, not in the vain, narcissistic sense, but in the constructive, helpful sense. A few days ago one of our oblates died. She has left behind the very precious memory of a kind and generous person who dealt with life’s bumps and contradictions with wit and determination. I can’t help reflecting that my personal ‘gallery of heroes’, so to say, is peopled by those whose lives have left a similar kind of memory. Perhaps we might each ask ourselves what sort of aftermath or consequence there will be to our own time on earth, and if we don’t like what we see, change course now, while we still can.

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Remembrance Sunday 2019

There are times when we are empty of words, bereft of thought and feeling, knowing only the numbness of grief. We who live close to the S.A.S. at Pontrilas can never forget the brutality of war or the price some pay that the rest of us may live freely. And the wars of conquest and domination, the wars fought over resources or born of old enmities and the refusal to forgive, the terror and suffering inflicted on the innocent in the name of some ideology, what of them? Today, as we pray for all who died in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we pray also for forgiveness for our own folly and the folly of those who went before, for the obstinacy that will not allow peace to flourish — for the wars that originate in selfishness and pride.

When St Benedict gave to his monks the aim of seeking after peace and pursuing it, he was giving them what we might call a ‘whole life programme’. Peace is not the work of a minute or two. It is not attained by an annual ceremony or wishy-washy goodwill or the kind of sentimentality that refuses to look facts in the face. It requires hard work and sacrifice. Sometimes, it may even cost lives.

Last year’s post on Remembrance Sunday https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/11/10/remembering-and-praying/ contains links to some earlier posts on the subject. Several more may be found by using the search bar.

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Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?

When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?

First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.

Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!

Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?

I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?

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Lesson from a Failed Banker and Ex-Jailbird

Today is the feast of St Callistus — failed banker, ex-jailbird, ex-slave, probably something of an invalid — oh, and pope. And not only pope, but the man who, despite much opposition from such luminaries as Tertullian and Hippolytus (who did not think him strict enough and spread what most historians consider false rumours about him), grasped the importance of reconciling sinners to the Church. He argued that the power of binding and loosing was given not just to Peter himself but to every successor of Peter and that mercy should be shown to the repentant. In the days of the Donatist schism that was a matter of great urgency. I think it is still a matter of great urgency for us today. We are so often inclined not to show mercy, being rather more rigorous than God who seems to tolerate those we disagree with or believe to be seriously wrong about anything or everything (usually the latter).

I am certainly not arguing that nothing matters, that all beliefs are equally valid and that we can endorse anything we please, expecting God to follow suit. Of course not! But today’s feast and Callistus’s decree remind us powerfully of the importance of charity and mercy in our interactions with one another and the way in which they echo God’s own mercy towards us. We are often tempted to assume that we know what others think or mean and judge accordingly, and that can make us unduly harsh or self-confident when a little more reflection and a little more willingness to listen might transform the situation and our understanding of it.

It isn’t just the successor of Peter who has the power of binding and loosing. In a non-sacramental sense, all of us do. We can set others free from the chains of hatred and unforgiveness, if we choose. In so doing, we unbind ourselves. How that works out in particular situations, I can’t say; but I have a hunch that trying to be more forgiving, charitable and merciful will make the world a bit friendlier, a bit more peaceful and, dare I say it, more godly, too. Isn’t that worth trying? And in case you think that we can keep all this delightfully abstract, may I suggest we all examine our consciences. Is there someone against whom we hold a grudge or who we think has done us harm or behaved badly whom we need to forgive? To whom, in short, we must show mercy, as a brother or sister equally flawed, equally living by the mercy of God?

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