The ugly scenes in the Commons yesterday may have left many wondering whether we can sink any lower. The terrible truth is, yes we can. Violent language too easily turns to violent deeds. We have only to think of the murder of Jo Cox to recognize how quickly whipping up hatred can lead to death and destruction. The only word I can find to describe the current situation in the U.K. is ‘chaos,’ and it doesn’t look a very creative chaos to me. It is, literally, shocking — shocking us out of our absurd beliefs about ourselves (decent, moderate people) our democracy (Parliamentary democracy, the best in the world) and our future, whether in or out of the E.U. (jam tomorrow, either way). The attempt to pitch Parliament against the people may succeed; we may end up with a country, or should I say countries, given that the Union itself must be at risk, more divided than ever before.
Where do the Churches stand in all this? Has any of them anything to say that is worth hearing? One may be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church is so involved with her own interior problems that she has scarcely registered what is happening to the nation as a whole. Here in the monastery we pray diligently and try to keep abreast of events, but we would be the first to admit that our engagement with politics is necessarily at one remove since we do not adhere to any party line nor take any part in any party political debate. I think our role must be to encourage others; to remind people of good will that not only does what is said or done matter, but also the way in which it is said or done; that actions have consequences; and that the common good is not ‘what’s best for me’ but something larger and more demanding. The section of the Rule of St Benedict that we read today is very pertinent, especially these words:
We descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder erected is our life in this world. (RB 7.7–8)
Humility may not be an obvious quality to associate with politicians but that is not to say it is unnecessary. Dare we hope that our M.P.s will take note? Will we pray that they do?
One would have to have been living on another planet not to be aware of Greta Thunberg and her campaign to make us all more aware of climate change and the urgent need to change our behaviour. So far, so good. As Benedictines, we are very conscious of the obligation to treat everything on earth with reverence. As individuals, we are convinced of the reality of climate change (Quietnun, being a scientist by training, is particularly eloquent on the subject) and try to ensure that everything we do as a community is consistent with that. But that does not mean that we endorse any one approach to the matter, or that we are entirely comfortable with the way in which some people argue their case. For instance, the exhortations of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, measured against their jet-setting lifestyle, are hardly compelling. The case of Greta Thunberg is much more complex.
Let me say at once that I myself am a little uneasy. What she says strikes me as being true and necessary, and there is a consistency about her conduct that speaks volumes not only about her but also about her family. I am not so sure that I agree with some of her methods, the school strikes being a particular worry of mine. Two things really trouble me, however. First, there is the question of manipulation. How far is she being used by others? At sixteen, she is having to deal with situations most of us would find difficult even at a much older age; and knowing that she has Asperger’s makes me wonder whether undue pressure is being put on her. Second, the amount of vicious scorn poured on her by older adults is completely indefensible. Sometimes it takes the form of outright attacks which betray the envy and hostility of the perpetrators; sometimes it takes the form of seeming concern for her well-being that fools no-one. What nobody can dispute is that Greta Thunberg has done more in a year to highlight the urgency and potential disaster of climate change issues than the rest of us have in over forty years.
So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with two very real concerns. Whenever a young person challenges the complacency of an older generation, there will be sparks. We all admire the fervour and courage of young people, but we do not always take them seriously or we find reasons to play down their importance. In the case of Greta Thunberg there is a danger that the message will be lost because of hostile reactions to the messenger. There is also the danger that she herself will be damaged by the experience she is currently undergoing. The media have a habit of fêting the latest novelty, be it person or idea, then dropping it equally quickly. Just as I think we have a duty to pray for wisdom and decisive action in the matter of climate change, so I would argue that we have a duty to pray for Greta Thunberg herself. We should be grateful to her; and we should care for her as we would for any other young person — more so, perhaps, because she is being exposed to demands and pressures that go far beyond the ordinary. Whether we agree with her is not the point: she is an exceptional person and our response should be akin to the challenge she presents.
Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.
I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.
In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.
The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.
For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.
In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.
The word ‘myth’ tends to have two quite different meanings in modern English: one is that of a traditional story used to illustrate or explain some phenomenon; the other is that of some fiction, widely held but ultimately untrue. As an example of the first, think of the old ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. It’s more than an adage, it contains elements of myth. In this case, that of eating fruit making for a healthy diet which means less need for physicians. It’s an uncomplicated example of something true expressed in traditional form.
Now let’s take something more ambiguous. You may have noticed how often World War II has been invoked recently, especially by those who wish to downplay the possible complications of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Very few of us now alive played any part in that war and yet, again and again, we hear or see ‘we managed this or that during the War so we can cope with x or y.’ Actually, we didn’t do any such thing; our parents and grandparents did, and I am far from sure they would approve our hijacking of their story for our own ends today. The myth of Britain standing alone against the dark forces of Nazism is a powerful one containing elements of both truth and exaggeration beyond the scope of this post to analyse. What I would question, however, is its appropriateness as an argument in the Brexit debate. To me, it is slightly absurd and can come perilously close to demonising others. It is what I would call an ambiguous myth with elements of fiction in it.
I know some readers will take my introductory illustrations as the subject of this post. They aren’t, but I hope they will help with understanding something less easily examined because most of us don’t often reflect on the stories that make up part of our inner landscape. I want to ask whether there are some religious myths that are having an equally powerful but possibly distorting influence on our lives as Christians and more particularly as Catholics. Take, for example, our idea of a kind of Golden Age Catholicism which we locate in a time other than our own (of course) and which, amazingly, seems to reflect all our own preferences and prejudices. Thus, we have scraps over the liturgy, vestments, devotions, church art and architecture, music and what you will. The essential element in all these conflicts is the fact that we are right and everyone else is wrong, and we have history, or at least our favourite interpretation of it (our myth), on our side to prove it. The results can be disastrous.
The history of the Church is full of examples of misunderstandings and misapplied zeal. At the moment, for example, there is an attempt by some to make everyone receive Holy Communion on the tongue rather than in the hand. Now, there are some good reasons for that, but the way in which some people are presenting their case is so irreverent and accusatory that it undermines their position. It is, quite literally, hateful. Unfortunately, under the guise of a concern for reverence we can all become hugely irreverent. Our desire to impose our own vision on others can extend even to the most personal element in anyone’s life, their prayer. I have myself been taken to task for not praying in the way that some well-meaning folk think I should (I am not a Carmelite nor a Jesuit and find Fr Baker’s simple, old-fashioned, indeed very medieval, way of prayer much more natural to me than anything more structured).
In monastic life the myths by which we live tend to be more subtle. Our founding fathers or mothers all had to undergo great hardships and trials at the beginning (mainly true) and encountered much opposition (not always true) but won through in the end to live in perfect peace and amity with their local bishop and powerful personages (if only!). But the myth is important and helps to shape the character of the community and define its values. It is when it ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance that we have to be careful. The community living off its past reputation for holiness or the activities in which it once engaged can prevent its current members from being fully open to what the Holy Spirit is asking of it now. For instance, we were early adopters of an internet-based hospitality in which the production of free audio books for the blind and visually-impaired was a significant element. That is not the case today. Technology moves on at an astonishing rate and religious institutes with more resources than are available to us have recognized the potential of web-based activities. We have ceased to produce audio books and are looking again at how we use the internet to reach out to people. We have no plans to give up our online ministry, but we know we must adapt to changing times and circumstances, not cling rigidly to the past. There must be no compromise about our primary aim, which is to seek God, but integrating that search with our service of others requires thought and prayer and will inevitably involve mistakes of one kind or another. The myth must be re-assessed.
I hope I have written enough to suggest a few questions. What are the myths by which you live, either as an individual or as a family — or perhaps as some other entity, e.g. a business? Do they help, or do they imprison you in a past or an attitude that is not genuinely life-giving? In other words, do your own myths encourage you to go forward into an uncertain future or do they hold you back, fearful of what may lie ahead? How does grace come into the picture? As summer comes slowly to an end, the idea of fruitfulness comes to the fore. Oughtn’t it to play a part in our own lives, too?
It is a difficult line to tread, between sharing one’s enthusiasm and parading one’s knowledge. A few months ago I was taken to task for expressing delight in some of the work being done by South American type designers. I made no comment on the suitability of the typefaces for any particular use but found myself drawn into an increasingly grumpy exchange on Twitter where my interlocutor was concerned principally with the accessibility of typefaces, especially online, if I remember correctly. At the end of the exchange, I felt as though I had been lectured well and truly and the person I’d been conversing with declared himself angry and went off for a walk to cool down. It was an example of the way in which sharing an enthusiasm can go horribly wrong if one does not take into account the possibility of its being misunderstood. I regret the misunderstanding and would love to put it right, but once one has got at cross purposes it can be very hard to put things straight. One just has to trust to God that He will deal with it and try to avoid making the same mistake in future. I have not made any comment on typefaces or printing since because I don’t want to upset people.
A similar thing can happen on other Social Media. One makes a small point or comment and someone decides to demonstrate that they know much more than one does oneself, or they expand one’s original comment as though one were completely unaware of any other aspect of the case or had intentionally left something out. My usual response is either to say ‘thank you’ or, if I have some doubts about what is said, to ignore the remark. Unfortunately, I do not always follow my own advice, and I am sure I have caused hurt and misunderstanding at times both by my own comments and by my response to other people’s comments. What can one do in such a situation?
I think there are only two possible responses: a simple ‘sorry’, without, please note, going over the rights and wrongs of the case again. That rarely leads to better understanding. ‘Falling out of faithful friends/Renewing is of love’ perhaps, but one has to be good friends to start with. In any case, I am not suggesting that one should avoid expressing one’s opinions or sharing one’s enthusiasms. I think it is the way we do so that needs a little thought. The second response is more humbling but ultimately a way of gaining deeper insight: to ask oneself why one made the comment in the first place. Was one really sharing an enthusiasm or bolstering one’s own ego by parading one’s knowledge? My own conscience is far from clear on that question. How about you?
One of the disadvantages of being a nun is that many people think there are a number of questions on which one should not express any opinion. It is acceptable to be against injustice, poverty, war and disease, of course — and to say so quite vigorously to anyone who will listen. Among Catholics it is acceptable to be pro-life, though not all would agree that to be pro-life means being against the death penalty or having reservations about the use of military force in certain situations. But to have opinions about politics or economics or the ethics and purposes of business or science, that is a much more questionable proposition. Why should that be so? I agree, for example, that it would be wrong for me to engage in party politics, but does my being a nun mean I should forget everything I ever learned about the world beyond the cloister or forfeit any right to have an opinion because I’m no longer actively involved in business and am definitely not a scientist? I certainly can’t say I’m no longer involved in politics. I have a vote, and I use it. Similarly, the monastery needs goods and services to function, and that involves us in making decisions about the use of resources and the ethics of the decisions we make. And as readers will know, I take a close interest in some scientific questions because they have a direct bearing on my own health.
How far is a politician’s personal morality to be taken into account when assessing his/her fitness for office? Does it matter if a politician lies or makes promises that cannot be fulfilled? If I say, for example, that I find both Mr Trump’s and Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth somewhat curious, am I overstepping a limit or simply voicing what many others think? Either way, I am expressing an opinion. I ought not to do so lightly or without taking into account the possible consequences, knowing that it would be wrong to harm someone’s reputation. If I argue that making money is not the sole objective of business, am I saying anything very extraordinary? I don’t think so, because I believe that ethical questions are not abstract but affect us all very deeply. In the same way, scientific advances often run ahead of our ability to think about them critically. It is easy to tie ourselves up in knots, especially if we know that we have an imperfect grasp of facts or that the conclusions we come to may be unwelcome.
Take, for example, my question about the ethics and purposes of business. Most people would say that it is wrong to mislead or make false claims while recognizing that a whole industry (advertising) has been built up on the premiss that one can enhance the value of a product by presenting it to the public in the most flattering light. Unfortunately, that may mean ‘massaging the truth’, which is where it becomes a little more complicated. What about a business’s end purpose? Isn’t that to make money for its owners, the shareholders, and those who participate in its activities, the workers? Yes and no. If that were the sole purpose of business, it surely would not matter what a business did. Oughtn’t business in some way to contribute to the common good, and the way in which it does so ought to be consistent with that good? Given the number of companies scrambling to ensure that they have a greener footprint than they did ten years ago, that seems to be a message that has got through. But who decides these things or enables businesses to make ethical decisions?
With that question, I think we come to the heart of the matter. Ethics committees are only as effective as the people who constitute them. In recent years we have encountered a number of difficult cases in the world of science, where individuals have undertaken experiments because they could, not because there was an ethical argument for doing so. Many of us haven’t even begun to think about the kind of questions that the advance of A.I. will pose, but we can’t close our eyes to the fact that we do need to think about them. Whether we are Aristotelians, Kantians, Utilitarians or whatever, both as individuals and as a society, we need to consider how our personal values affect our existence, how we arrive at ethical decisions and the part those decisions play in both our present and future. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from that process — not even annoying nuns like me.
I am sometimes tempted to think that the reputation of today’s saint, St Peter Chrysologus (‘Golden-Tongued’), is helped by the fact that much of his writing has been lost. We have only a few of his sermons, none of which demonstrates his fabled eloquence — or at least not to me, who once had to translate a few of them.
I was thinking about this as I did my usual swift survey of social media and came up against something I have noticed many times before but never thought of mentioning on this blog: the carelessness with which we write and, in particular, the way in which it is thought acceptable to denigrate women and girls. Kind and educated people seem to think it unobjectionable to use swear words as adjectives and regularly refer to women and girls whose views they disagree with as bitches or worse. Why is that? Have we really all undergone a collective impoverishment of vocabulary, or has aggression become our normal response to anything or anyone we dislike, especially, but certainly not exclusively, if female?*
Some of us smiled at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide, with its masculine focus, its determined refusal to acknowledge that language changes over time, and its misunderstanding of some punctuation practices; but no-one, I think, would ever accuse him of being deliberately rude. I find it hard to imagine him referring to an opponent as a bitch, for example, or using a derogatory term about those of a different ethnicity; and that, I think, matters.
The language we use says a great deal about us as individuals but it also affects those who hear us. If we have got into the habit of using profanities or referring to other people with the language of the farmyard, we have done more than merely coarsened our speech. We have coarsened our thought, too. In a world where violence is becoming more and more widespread, we cannot shrug off responsibility for the effect our own words and attitudes have on others. St Benedict was acutely aware of this and again and again urges restraint, thoughtfulness, and consideration for others. I think he was on to something.
*I’ve singled this out because I’m probably more aware of it, being a woman myself, and because there is no male equivalent. Calling someone a dog or a cur doesn’t have the same derogatory overtones.
Here in the monastery we keep the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus as a feast of hospitality and friendship — exactly what one would expect given the emphasis St Benedict places on hospitality in the Rule. Western society, however, is becoming less and less enthusiastic about welcoming the stranger or honouring the guest while friendship is often devalued to mean little more than social media ‘likes’. Our ‘hospitality suites’ are commercial enterprises, where every canapé or cup of coffee is minutely costed; our governments are more interested in immigration quotas and building barriers of one kind or another than in sharing what we have with the less fortunate.
In the British Isles we have a long history of welcoming others. We have been called a mongrel race because of all the different nationalities and ethnicities that go into our make-up. But I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that among many the idea of welcoming others is under renewed strain. Where jobs and housing are at stake, a narrower view sometimes prevails: keep the others out! Those who oppose such a view are dismissed as namby-pamby liberals whose comfortable existences are untouched by the hardships and uncertainties of the rest. The rise of the EDL and other far-right groups adds fuel to the fire, for they depend on exaggerating differences, on creating a sense of tension and hostility, of grievance.
I’d like to suggest that it is time we all thought again about the hospitality shown by the family of Bethany. There was Martha, determined to give as good a dinner to everyone as she could — which meant hard work to supply an obvious material need. There was Mary, listening to Jesus and learning from him — paying attention to what the guest considered important, not seeking to impose her own ideas. There, too, was Lazarus, who was Jesus’ friend — so dear a friend that when he died, Jesus wept. All three elements are important in the welcome we give others but the most important is surely friendship. Unless and until we have learned to be friends with one another, we have not begun to be truly hospitable. Learning to be friends takes effort and sacrifice as well as delight in the discovery of what each brings to the friendship. It does not often happen all at once or without an openness that risks being abused. Something to ponder there, perhaps.
During the hot weather I have done my best to be circumspect. Unlike Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, I haven’t been able to take myself off to a cool corner and ‘aestivate’, but I have tried to avoid obvious conflict zones like Twitter or Facebook. In this I have been enormously helped by some hackers who decided to try to bring down this site. Two lost days when my attention had to be focused on making sure that nothing had slipped through the net (all our sites are professionally monitored 24/7 to make sure they are safe for you to use, but accidents do happen); two lost days when I was unable to get done any of the things I had hoped to do — a minor irritation, if ever there was one!
What do we do about these minor irritations? If some of those who comment on social media are to be believed, we should adopt an attitude of perfect acceptance, allowing nothing to ruffle the surface of our thoughts and feelings. I call that the Teflon Response and am very glad it isn’t a particularly Christian or Benedictine response. Benedict, you may recall, allowed for ‘justifiable grumbling’ in certain cases, and even Jesus cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit (cf Mark 11.12). The point is, being human doesn’t mean pretending to be an angel; it means being honest but also recognizing that there must be proportion and restraint in the way we express our negative feelings. Just because we are hot and bothered doesn’t mean we have the right to bother others with our hot tempers or treat them with contempt.
The heatwave may be over for now, but minor irritations are sure to come thick and fast as summer wears on. Most of us will have one or two little tricks we use to try to stem an immediate angry response, such as counting to ten or walking from one side of a room to another or uttering a short silent prayer. Failures, alas, are bound to occur. If they do, the best course is to turn matters over to God. Choose the right time to apologize if you can but beware of self-justification or going over what caused the misunderstanding in the first place. That will only stoke up the fire, so to say. God knows how to bring about peace better than we do. We have only to ask and to wait. After all, so many of our minor irritations stem from the fact that we want to be in control and dictate the timetable for, or the unfolding of, events or other people’s behaviour— but aren’t and can’t.