Nun Jokes and April Fools

When did you last hear of a genuinely funny April Fool? One that was both clever and convincing but which didn’t leave anyone feeling diminished or taken advantage of? One that sticks in my mind was a pseudo-technical review in a respected printing journal some years ago. It concerned a scanning device built from a homely microwave by Chinese engineers. It was brilliant in every way: cutting-edge technology (scanners cost thousands of pounds back then), detailed fake analyses of performance and cost and so on and so forth. The name, alas, gave it away: Lirap One.

Most people enjoy jokes and a sense of humour usually comes fairly high up on the list of desirable qualities in a husband or wife. It is certainly a sine-qua-non of surviving community life, but, pace Freud, it is difficult to define or explain how it works. It doesn’t always travel well. The jokes I tell in Spanish, for example, work quite differently from the jokes I tell in English; and I’m not sure I would even attempt a joke in French. The British and Americans are divided by more than a common language: what is funny to one is not always funny to the other as we frequently learn to our cost.

Humour can be cruel, as every child knows, but I’m not sure we are any better than our forebears at ensuring that we don’t give offence when we make jokes, for all our attempts to outlaw certain subjects. When confronted with a particularly tiresome ‘nun joke’ for example, I sometimes ask the teller to substitute the words ‘black’ or ‘gay’ and see if it is still tellable. The results can be quite revealing.

One thing of which I am absolutely certain is that Jesus had a good sense of humour. The gentle teasing of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the parables he told, his dialogues with Peter and the other apostles, all  are eloquent of someone who knew how to laugh and make others laugh. Mind you, given the disciples he had (and still has) it was a very necessary quality. Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone.

 

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Dumb Animals

I have spent much of the night sitting up with a sick dog. (Before you besiege the monastery, let me assure you the vet is on the case and the appropriate remedy will be applied.) Unlike sitting up with a sick person, sitting up with a sick animal means responding to signs rather than words. Of course, we anthropomorphize and misread many of the signs our domestic wolf is really sending us. The shaggy head, the liquid brown eyes, seem redolent of deepest misery, but who is to say? I have not reached morning with any great insights to share with the world. There have been no midnight revelations about the condition humaine, no sudden illuminations. The reality is, and remains: one sick dog, one tired nun. Sometimes life is like that.

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Fear of the Unseen: Radiation and the Devil

I have often observed that more people are afraid of the devil than actually believe in God. The idea of a malign power bent on our destruction is somehow more believable than a loving God who has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. I think that is why some people spend their lives trying to ‘placate’ this unseen power. Their lives are more or less crippled by fear: it never really leaves them alone. (This may not be your experience: I suspect that clergy and nuns tend to hear the darker secrets of their fellow human beings, and fear often features largely.)

In the last few days we have seen the focus of attention move from the suffering of those affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to what is happening at Fukushima. I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of what is happening there, but I find it strange that the world’s media is more concerned about what might happen than what actually has, and I think it all comes down to fear of the unknown. Radiation is something we cannot apprehend with the senses. It scares us because it is beyond our ordinary experience. We may pore over the statistics of the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, even Chernobyl, but we can’t quite convince ourselves that we may not be facing armageddon. We are, quite simply, afraid, and at root the fear is for ourselves. Put like that, the need to help the Japanese suffering from cold and hunger becomes more urgent, even if it has fallen from the headlines. In so doing we may find we have helped ourselves.

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Washing Up a Way to Heaven

For once we begin reading RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, on Monday, the day when the working week begins for most people. The first line of this chapter, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, is much beloved of monastic cooks as they plonk yet another huge pan in front of the novice assigned to washing-up duties. Irony apart, it is a sentence worth pondering, as is the rest of the chapter.

Our society exalts the value of leisure. Until comparatively recently, the idea of earning enough to be able to retire early was widely seen as a positive goal. Advertisements exhorted us to ‘relax’ with this product or that (does that explain the ads for discount sofas one finds in every newspaper these days? Ed). The good life was seen, not in Platonic terms, but in terms of having as much as possible for as little effort as possible. Credit card companies had a great time and very few bothered about the mountain of debt we were piling up.

We know better now. We know that Mr Micawber was right, although we still wish he weren’t. I will probably be under siege for saying so, but protests against public sector cuts are a little unrealistic. Cutting the deficit isn’t just a mantra of the Coalition Government, it is essential and there is bound to be pain for all of us. I’m not suggesting that Benedict’s meditation on the value of work is a corrective to all the sloppy thinking we have indulged in, but I do think it says something we don’t hear often enough. What we do has spiritual value. It has value whether the world thinks it important or not. Knowing that won’t lessen the grease on the pan, but it does make cleaning it, potentially at least, a noble and gracious act. What price washing-up as a way to heaven?

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A Leson in Dignity

Hokusai Kanagawa: The Great WaveNo looting, no shouting, no angry scenes: the dignity and self-restraint of the Japanese as they suffer the unimaginable horrors of earthquake and tsunami, and now the looming menace of nuclear disaster, is chastening. We in Britain sometimes seem to make a virtue of anger and complaint: proof that we are not to be done down or deprived of our rights. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to a culture of blame and a kind of organized selfishness. We invoke the spirit of the Blitz but our response to difficulty or disaster sometimes lacks the substance.

World War II is no longer a living memory except for the elderly. For those of us with no first-hand experience of it, talk of Japanese Prisoner-of-War camps or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remote, something that belongs to the past. Looking at the images of devastation in Japan, I couldn’t help feeling that it was very like a re-run of the destruction wreaked by war, but with this difference: here it was the power of nature at work, rather than the power of man. Hokusai’s depiction of a tsunami is powerfully evocative of the terror nature can inspire, yet it is, paradoxically, a calm terror. We see the magnificence of the Great Wave, we know it will destroy, yet there is also tranquillity, acceptance.

According to a Shinto understanding of the world, we inhabit the earth by gracious permission of the gods. They are not particularly interested in us or in what happens to us. Is that the secret of Japanese stoicism, our unimportance to the gods? I don’t know. A Christian understanding of God, one who has numbered every hair of our head, who regards us as the apple of his eye, doesn’t make the terror or the tragedy any less, but it does give hope that death is not the end of the story. As we continue to pray for the Japanese, for those caught up in the strife in Libya, we may need to draw on that hope more and more.

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A Different Kind of Lent

God has very gently but definitely decided that our plans for Lent should be different from what we had expected. It happens every year, but as always, there is something we could not have foreseen, an entirely new twist. It all began with a mega-migraine for Quietnun. By Shrove Tuesday every thought of carnival and pancakes had disappeared and the monastery had assumed a Lenten simplicity and seriousness. The spareness inside matched the cold spring sunshine outside.

On Tuesday evening came news that a dear friend, who had spent twenty-three years as a nun but who had had to leave for health reasons, was in a hospice, in the final stages of a long, slow death from cancer. Tuesday night was spent praying for her; at mid-day on Ash Wednesday we heard that she had died. Her Lent now over, surely she will soon be Eastering with the saints for ever.

As I walked to church, I could not help reflecting that we had entered the mystery of death and rebirth we shall celebrate at Easter; had already experienced something of our own human frailty; were being asked to hope in spite of all. The ashes we received were made from the palms carried in procession on Palm Sunday last year: a reminder that human triumphs do not last very long, only God is eternal. I thought, too, that the love of the Lord is everlasting and his mercies new every morning. This Lent we are called to live in awareness of his mercy in a way we never have before. God has written our Lent Bill.

(Please see the Shrove Tuesday post for an explanation of what a Lent Bill is; and I didn’t get Leviticus, I got St John’s Gospel.)

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Ten Tips for Bloggers

A meditative start to Monday this. I am well aware that there is much still to learn but here are a few tips for aspiring bloggers — and before you write and tell me, I know I don’t always observe them myself:

1. A provocative title will attract viewers but not necessarily readers. There is a difference.

2. Do not be surprised when people read what they think you have written, rather than what you have actually written.

3. Short and simple is better than long and complex. You should be doing the work, not your reader.

4. Don’t use copyright images/audio to illustrate your post unless you have the right to.

5. Be polite, especially towards those who hold different opinions. Sarcasm is not wit; nor is the imputation of base motives to others acceptable unless you like the idea of being sued.

6. Encourage debate: make it easy for people to comment, and engage with those who do.

7. People take the trouble to read your blog because they want to read what you’ve written; too many links to other blogs, unless relevant to the discussion, can be irritating. Use the Blogroll instead.

8. Try to make sure your blog is easy on the eye: that orange on black scheme is not a good idea unless you want to give your readers migraine.

9. Allow yourself a sixty-seconds pause before pressing the publish button. Both you and your readers will appreciate it. Believe me.

10. Remember that humour can be tricky and doesn’t always travel well. We are often divided by a common language.

Finally, not a tip, more a suggestion, but if you are a believer, pray before you begin to write. The Holy Spirit is interested in what you write, even if no one else is.

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In Praise of Books

Saturday morning is a good time for indulging a not-so-private enthusiasm for books and reading. I admit I love books: their shape, colour, texture, smell (I got over loving the taste at about age three). I love reading them; I love handling them; I love looking at them on their shelves or wherever they happen to be. Because I am, in some degree, a maker of books myself, I lap up typefaces and layouts, silently noting good or bad typography, choice of paper, ink and binding. I smile over unintentional contradictions, chuckle over misplaced punctuation, purr when I find a gerund or gerundive correctly used. Books are for reading I tell myself, so I don’t mind when the pages are scribbled on, turned down at important passages, loved literally to bits. I like reading on the monastery’s iPod Touch as well. At night, in bed, it’s light and comfortable to hold and there’s a great range of free books I actually want to read, such as Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain, still the most readable guide to Iberia.

Tonight is World Book Night and it’s calculated that over a million books will be given away free at various venues — pubs, clubs and churches, to name but a few. We shall be safely tucked up in bed when all that happens, but tomorrow morning after Mass we shall be giving away new books on Newman and the saints, about thirty all told. You have to be there to get a book, so no email requests, please; and, of course, if you are minded to make a donation towards our Monastery project, we won’t turn it down. Happy reading!

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Equality is not Fairness

Yesterday Eunice and Owen Johns lost their appeal in the High Court. They had wanted to become respite foster carers but a social worker at Derby City Council had expressed concern at the couple’s opinions about homosexuality. In the words of Mr Johns, “We are prepared to love and accept any child. All we were not willing to do was to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing.”

In giving their verdict, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beaton said that while Christians in general might well make good foster parents, people with traditionalist views like Mr and Mrs Johns might well not. (I suppose we should ask the fifteen children the Johns fostered back in the 90s about that, but it could be a bit radical, to look at the evidence.) Anyway, breathtaking though the judges’ assessment of Christianity may be, what is really significant is what followed. The court said that while there was a right not to face discrimination on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation, equality of sexual orientation took precedence. In other words, the law is to be interpreted according to secular values. In part, that seems absolutely right; in part, it seems very dangerous, for it will mean that Christian opposition to euthanasia, for example, will have no value in law. Conscience will count for nothing.

Today we expect to hear that charging lower insurance premiums for women drivers (who cause fewer accidents and are therefore a lower risk than men) is discriminatory and contrary to our laws about sex equality. In the name of equality, therefore, premiums for women will go up, and premiums for men will go down; but the nature of the risk will not change.

Both these cases concern equality, and nothing could demonstrate more clearly that equality is not the same as fairness. I don’t know the Johns, but I have a feeling that there may be questions that are not being addressed or which have not come out in reporting of the case. Respite care is not the same as long-term fostering or adoption. It is a valuable service that comparatively few are able or willing to offer. While one applauds Derby City Council’s determination to find the best possible foster carers, one wonders whether in this instance it has not sacrificed children’s interests to a theoretical position on equality. Similarly, in the case of car insurance premiums, equality in one area must mean arbitrariness in the assessment of risk in others. Certainly, I shall be challenging our insurers to explain how they assess the risk I pose (not many male nuns around, I think).

Sometimes we work hard to achieve equality and forget that fairness is also important. I may not be alone in wondering whether our copious equality legislation isn’t producing a society that is harsher and less fair than it ought to be. What can we as Christians do about it?

Update
Since writing the above I’ve realised that many will think I am criticizing the High Court opinion about the Johns or taking issue over the suitablity of the Johns to be foster parents. I am not. I am using their case to discuss our assumptions about equality. I don’t think the Johns should have taken their case to court in the first place, but that is just my opinion and does not affect what I am trying to say about equality and fairness.

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Managing Expectations

I imagine we all have our own take on this. There are the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we have of ourselves. The expectations God has of anyone rarely seem to figure, probably because he is much less demanding than we are.

I have become fairly inured to the expectations others have of me as a nun. I know I should be eternally young, beautiful, patient and kind, needing nothing, giving everything; but as I can’t manage any of that, I am quite happy to disappoint. The expectations I have of others are more troubling. I know I have sometimes burdened them with my expectations, wanting them to be perfect in a way that I am not perfect myself or, worse still, to be perfect in the way that I have decided for them. Finally, there are the expectations I have of myself, which are largely delusional, even down to the time it will take me to do something (one always underestimates).

And God? God is different. “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” What God wants is us, just as we are: poor, weak, wobbly and absolutely infuriating, always misunderstanding, backsliding and generally unsatisfactory. God is never disappointed in us, never put out by our failures, because no matter how often we get it wrong he still sees in us something we so often fail to register: “Christ lovely in limbs not his”. Praise him.

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