Monday Morning Blues

It seems to be a feature of modern life that many people regard Monday morning with a slight inward shrinking if not downright distaste. Monday means a resumption of daily toil, obedience to timetables not of one’s own choosing and a mournful re-engagement with all that was left undone on Friday. In Britain at least, the weather is either much worse than it was on Sunday, thus adding to the general gloom, or infinitely better, compounding the sense of reluctance we feel. Yet Monday is really no worse than any other day of the week. The problem, surely, is that we cannot quite convince ourselves of that.

Neither St Benedict nor St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast this is, seems to offer much help. The Father of Western Monasticism continues serenely on his way, urging us to be on the alert for God in every situation, while the Doctor Angelicus invites us to concentrate on the reality of truth and virtue, subjects perhaps too abstract for those suffering from Monday Morning Blues. There are, however, two other titles given to St Thomas that are revealing. He is known as the Doctor Communis because for many centuries his status as theologian and philosopher was unrivalled in the Catholic Church; while Pope St John Paul II called him Doctor Humanitatis because of his sensitivity and openness to the value of all cultures. Perhaps we too need to cultivate a little more openness, not just to people but to the possibilities that this new day offers.

It may seem difficult, but Monday morning offers us all an opportunity we did not have before. We may be reluctant to admit that or too bound up in our own misery to open our eyes to it. There is no guilt in that, but maybe we could try a little exercise in alternative thinking and seeing which would give us a different perspective. Invert the colours on your computer display (which you can do via the accessibility feature) and you will discover that blue converts to a warm and welcoming orange. Perhaps that is the true colour of Monday morning.

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What Constitutes a Civilized Society?

Over the past few days I have read several comments both for and against the recently-enacted legislation regarding abortion in New York state. To me, the idea of abortion is abhorrent; the idea of permitting abortion at any stage up to birth is mind-boggling. Having said that, I quite see why many of those who are in favour of the legislation argue that such cases would be exceptional and rare. Hard cases, however, do not usually make for good law, nor do they make for good argument. One troubling side to the comments I have read is their sheer viciousness — and that goes for those who are opposed to the legislation as much as for those who are in favour. It seems we cannot agree on our core values, nor can we agree how to conduct ourselves when those values have to be examined and debated. U.K. readers may find an uncomfortable parallel in our current discussion of Brexit. It is as though we have forgotten what it means to be civilized.

crucifix

How does this apply in the context of today’s feast, that of the Conversion of St Paul? I think we sometimes forget that Saul of Tarsus was a good man but became a better one when he was captured by the love of Christ. As an observant Jew, Saul must have been upright, generous, supremely moral, loving God and the traditions of his forefathers. But that experience on the road to Damascus changed him. Everything the Christian Paul writes is filled with the love of Christ. It transforms what we would call his ‘world view’. His zeal remains, but it is tempered with a humility and sympathy that was not so noticeable before. Would it be very wrong to say that the Risen Christ had a civilizing influence on him? I don’t mean by that to belittle Paul’s conversion or to suggest that he was not, in the conventional sense, a civilized man before his conversion. I mean that after his conversion Paul was much more aware of the value and need of every human being, Jew or gentile, so much so that he was ready to give up all that he held most dear for their sake. The proud citizen of Rome suddenly understood that to be a Christian civis was to accept responsibility for the good of others, to place the good of others before one’s own.

I wonder whether that sheds any light on what we mean by a civilized society. In the West, the role of religion, especially Christianity, is more and more downplayed. There are times, indeed, when being deliberately hostile or offensive towards the most cherished beliefs of others is regarded as being not merely acceptable but a mark of ‘freedom’ or ‘maturity’. Views with which one disagrees are simply dismissed. To argue that abortion and euthanasia are wrong is to invite the charge of being lacking in compassion, yet how compassionate are we really if we do not care for the young, the old and the sick? We may have similar qualms about the morality of capital punishment, the inequalities that mean many go hungry while the West suffers an epidemic of obesity, and so on. Sometimes I have the uneasy feeling that much contemporary morality is based on nothing more than ‘what’s best for me’ — the law of the jungle rather than of civilsation as traditionally understood.

We were discussing this in chapter this morning and asking ourselves what we could do about it. One person mentioned the decline in the use of Christian symbolism and suggested that it had a greater significance than many were prepared to admit. It is comparatively rare nowadays to go into a house where a crucifix or cross is on display. Our custom in the monastery is to have a crucifix in every room — a small, silent reminder of our purpose and of what our duty is. Perhaps those of us who are Christian could think about that. Showy displays of fervour are definitely not what are needed, but in my experience most people find it difficult to be deliberately rude or unkind or selfish when facing a crucifix. It is when we remove our gaze that the trouble starts and the old Adam reasserts himself. Perhaps that was Paul’s secret. He kept his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ. We should do the same.

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Condemning and Condoning

Have you noticed how often there is a call to condemn something or other — the actions of an individual or an institution, or some historical event or behaviour that we now regard as wrong? Any failure to condemn is regarded as tantamount to condoning whatever is to be reprobated. That often leads to some very awkward apologies that appear intended merely to placate those with a sense of grievance rather than put right any real wrong.

For instance, if one is white British, one is sometimes asked to condemn and apologize for Britain’s part in the Black Slave trade. I can’t imagine that anyone approves of it or would want to try to justify it nowadays, but can one realistically be held to account for a wrong occurring in the past with which one may have no direct connection? Given many families’ lowly social and economic status during the years in question, it is difficult to say how many were actively involved. If one accepts that, simply because one is British, one shares in some sort of collective guilt for the suffering the trade inflicted, can one also claim credit for the work of the abolitionists? It’s difficult, isn’t it? Failure to speak out on the matter is regarded by some as evidence of complicity and has led to some ugly confrontations. I am sure you can think of other examples, but I use this because it will be familiar to many and concerns a genuine injustice and evil.

The advent of social media and the ease with which opinion can be expressed and shared has tended to make the urge to condemn much more prevalent. Look at Twitter, for example, and you will see rant after rant, accusation after accusation, often coming from those with more anger than information. The speed with which the Covington Boys were condemned online was astonishing. Even their home diocese did not wait to examine the facts of the case more carefully. The result has been unhappy all round. Today’s subject for condemnation will doubtless be different, because the world moves on, and the wreckage left behind by reckless accusations is of no consequence to those fuelled by a (misplaced) sense of righteous purpose.

Thus far, most of you will probably be in general agreement, but here’s the rub. Christians are just as bad at condemning others as anyone else. True, we may not use the profanity-littered language of the angry tweeter nor make the rash accusations of the furious Facebook-er, but we jump to conclusions just as readily and answer back equally curtly. We may not demand apologies as such, but we can make it plain we expect submission to our views rather than respectful debate. I have often argued that if we pray before we go online, we can avoid many of these things. We are not called to solve all the world’s problems, only those we can actually do something about. Raving and ranting about injustice achieves very little; working to put right what we see to be wrong is less dramatic and much harder, but it is also much more in line with the gospel’s teaching. Today, if you are tempted to say something harsh or make an accusation based on hearsay, please think twice. One day we shall answer for every word we have spoken. Every word.

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Hope in Dark Times

Whatever one thinks about Brexit, no one can be indifferent to last night’s events in the House of Commons. Yet again we have been reminded that representative democracy (e.g. Parliament) and direct democracy (e.g. Referenda) do not sit very well together. We are now faced with a situation the majority of us feel we can do nothing to improve and which promises only more uncertainty and, indeed, suffering and loss. The human face of the Brexit question has tended to be obscured by clever, well-nourished men and women animatedly discussing statistics and mechanisms that look very different in the industrial areas of the Midlands/northern England and the fishing/farming communities of Wales and Scotland. Personal ambition, calculations of political advantage and some adroit positioning of company interests all come into play. But it is not a game we are playing. It is difficult not to be downcast and give in to the sense of hopelessness that goes with the grey of a January morning.

So, just two simple thoughts, culled from todays Mass readings, which seem to me peculiarly apposite. The first reading, Hebrews 2.14–18, makes the point that we are enslaved not so much by death as by the fear of death. Fear of what may happen, what might happen, only too often ends up paralysing us. I speak with some conviction on this point. I have known, ever since I was first diagnosed, that my cancer is incurable. My initial prognosis wasn’t very good, but I have been fortunate enough to live my life without spending time wondering when it will end. After all, as I cheerfully informed a friend, I could fall under a ‘bus (though, living where we do, a timber lorry is a more likely modus moriendi). The point is, the what-ifs must not be allowed to cripple the what-ares. We must make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves, and our politicians must be alerted to the fact that many of us are not very happy with the way in which they have conducted themselves and hold them responsible for the mess we are in. This morning the future looks bleak, but with goodwill and hard work, surely something positive can be achieved?

My second point is more explicitly ‘religious’, but you must expect that in a blog written by a nun. In the gospel we read that in the early hours before dawn, Jesus went off to a lonely place and prayed there (cf Mark 1.29-39). That, essentially, is the vocation of a Benedictine: to have in her heart a lonely place where Christ may pray unceasingly to his Father. It is prayer made in the darkest of times but always in union with the one who is a compassionate and trustworthy high priest. As such, it is powerful prayer — not because of us, but because of Him. That is the kind of prayer of which we all stand in need today: the prayer of hope and trust.

N.B. Opinions expressed in this post are the responsibility of the writer and not to be attributed to the community.

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A Question About Generosity

The other day someone asked me something to which I paid little attention at the time but which I have thought about since: how does someone with a life-limiting disease such as cancer feel/respond when they are asked to pray for someone who has a bad cold, or when they read some heartening story about someone who has ‘beaten’ the disease they themselves have. I can’t remember the answer I gave. I imagine it was along the lines of ‘All requests for prayer are taken seriously. What may seem minor to one person may loom large in the life of another. Our business is to pray, not to judge the person who asks.’ Anyone who has ever had a bad cold will heartily concur. It does feel like death — or what we imagine death to be like — and we do want people to pray for us.

The question about reacting to another’s good news is trickier. I’d like to say, I rejoice for them and give thanks; and most times I do. But I must confess there are times when the gladness and rejoicing have to be squeezed out rather than oozing freely. I recall with shame when a dear friend telephoned to tell me that what we had both feared might be a cancerous growth turned out not to be. As he said over and over again, ‘Thank God, it’s not cancer!’ part of me was echoing the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Of course I rejoiced for mt friend, but I would like to be free of my own leiomyosarcoma and it would be dishonest not to admit that my gladness was tinged with more than a dollop of . . . not envy exactly, but something very like it. There was definitely a green tinge to my rejoicing.

We are so often urged to be generous. In origin, the word means to be noble, magnanimous, unstinting. Unfortunately, we tend to limit it to more prosaic meanings. We talk about being generous with money or time and conveniently forget that before we can be either we must be magnanimous, big-hearted. Of the three gifts the Magi brought to Jesus, surely the gold is most clearly a sign of love and generosity. Even today, gold is regarded as precious, a symbol of the desire to lavish the costliest of gifts on the beloved. But, alas for us, we are called upon to lavish the gold of our hearts on those who are not necessarily beloved (or at least, not as beloved as perhaps they ought to be). We are called upon to be generous to all. It may not be money or time we have to give. It may be something as simple as a smile of welcome, a listening ear, a small kindness that goes virtually unnoticed. We are called upon to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who grieve; in short, to look beyond ourselves and find and worship Christ in the other. I hope the next time I read one of those ‘I beat cancer’ stories, I shall do exactly that.

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New Year Resolutions

Already the New Year is beginning to look a little bedraggled. Christmas decorations have been taken down, trees lie in wet clumps beside the recycling bins, and the message of peace and goodwill to all has been drowned out by political spats, military coups and horrific violence. Yesterday, while we were celebrating the wonderful solemnity of Epiphany, a few brave spirits dressed in lycra passed by on shiney new bicycles, determination to get fit writ large upon their faces. I shuddered and averted my gaze, because I don’t really do New Year resolutions, certainly not the kind that require effort from lungs and muscles. Instead I read a number of comments about the old tradition of chalking one’s doors for Epiphany, then wondered how many would be observing today as Plough Monday. Away from the countryside, there aren’t many ploughs to bless, though I daresay we could (nearly) all dance to mark what was once the beginning of the agricultural year.

There is, of course, a connection between New Year resolutions, Plough Monday and life as a Benedictine — patience. No New Year resolution brings instant results; even in these days of GM crops and GPS tracking and assessment, farmers still have to wait to see the fruit of their toil; and as for being a Benedictine, that takes a whole lifetime to achieve. Today we read the final section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict in which he assures us that we ‘shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may be deemed worthy to share also in his Kingdom’ (RB Prol 50). It is a task that lasts usque ad mortem, until death. In the next 73 chapters Benedict will spell out how to give practical effect to our desire to follow Christ. Some of it will be difficult; some of it clean contrary to our own ideas; but it is advice we can trust because it has produced century after century of holiness. We can safely say of St Benedict that there is nothing weird or whacky about his teaching, no mendacious promises of instant fixes for what is wrong with our souls. He offers us only a plain, perservering pursuit of peace: a life of prayer, work and service in community. It will be costly, but the reward is great.

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The Danger of Cynicism

Cynicism is often thought to be cool. Standing aside and apart from the common herd suggests to the cynical intellectual or moral superiority. It is a sign of being special: a looking down on others from the heights of better knowledge or understanding. Forgive me for saying so, but I think that is rot. Cynicism is actually both depressingly common and commonly depressing. Why so? Because, among other things, it destroys wonder.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding thrilling those first images of Ultima Thule or the far side of the moon. Part of me registers the huge cost involved and the political and economic motivation that co-exists alongside the more purely scientific desire to explore the unknown, but wonder is my predominant emotion, my immediate response. Cynicism doesn’t come into it.

I think that is heartening for all sorts of reasons, not least because I believe that wonder is an important part of prayer. If prayer is no more than a list of requests (sometimes, let’s be honest, demands) or a series of apologies for sins real or imagined, the focus tends to remain firmly on ourselves, and we can easily become cynical because, not surprisingly, God does not see as we see, so our ideas about how our prayer should be answered are often disappointed. Allow a little wonder in and everything is transformed. We are not addressing a God ‘out there’ but a God near to us, who loves us, wishes to be known by us, and whose ideas are infinitely more amazing than our own.

So, whatever else you do today, do please allow yourself a few moments of wonder — at the beauty of the sky, the kindness of strangers, even the miracle of being alive one more day.

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Fitting Everything In

I sometimes wonder how other people manage to fit everything in. They look after their families, do their jobs, care for house and garden and STILL have time to read, write, watch videos and cultivate all kinds of hobbies, from extreme sports to needlepoint. By contrast I, who ought to have all the time in the world, am in a perpetual state of trying to keep up. Could it be that I exaggerate the ability of others to remain on top of things and underestimate my own ability to do the things that really matter?

Today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict (Prol. 14–20) goes straight to the point. A Benedictine is, by definition, a worker for God (Prol. 14), motivated by a desire for life (Prol 15) — life which, in all its fullness, can only be obtained by the renunciation of evil and the pursuit of goodness. So, we are exhorted to turn away from evil speech, do good, and seek after peace (Prol. 17). That will prepare us to hear the Lord’s invitation to follow the way of life (Prol. 20). Simple, isn’t it? Only, most of us don’t find it easy but almost impossibly hard, which is why we have to try and try again, spending our whole lives listening for that invitation in the midst of all the other activity we undertake. However much we want to hear and heed the voice of the Lord, we still need a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on our tables; importantly, we still need one another if we are to grow in holiness.

For the monk or nun, therefore, the challenge of fitting everything in remains. The only difference is motivation and approach — how and why we do things, rather than what we do. We ought not to be acting from selfish motives — what’s best for me, or even what’s best for my community — but from more altruistic ones — what’s best for everyone; and the way in which we do things ought to be less of a hectic scramble. I say ‘ought’ because we all fall short of the ideal. Perhaps that is a good thing. Those super-organized beings we admire from afar can be rather difficult to live with, making saints of everybody else rather than themselves!

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Looking Both Ways: 2019

Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.
Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.

Today is the first day of January, a month which, like the old pagan god Janus, looks two ways, back into the past and forwards into the future. It marks the beginning of the secular year, one more in that vast chain of being that binds us to all who have gone before and all who will come after. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, herself the hinge between the Old and New Covenants; and finally, it is the Octave Day of Christmas, a day that symbolizes both completion and a new beginning. So many glittering paradoxes, so many ideas to try to understand! Perhaps we could think about just one.

The Incarnation marks the intersection of time and eternity, the point at which the Creator enters his creation in a unique way, but it is dependent upon the consent and co-operation of a single human being, Mary. That fact alone should give us pause. It is a rewriting of the Magnificat, as the humility of God meets the greatness of Mary’s response and we are saved. Today is a day for gratitude, for rejoicing, and for renewed hope. We cannot change the past; the future is unknown; but we are given the present in which to ‘do now what may profit us for all eternity’, as St Benedict says.

May 2019 be filled with the blessings of peace, joy and unity for all.

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Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

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