This morning the dog took us for a walk through the lambing fields and along the edge of a coppice before returning via the Hendred brook and under the trees. Nothing very remarkable in that, you may think, but oh, how wrong you’d be! It was one of those ‘anonymous’ mornings — not very sunny, but warm and bright, like a thousand other mornings. The grass was thick and high, the cow parsley jostling with buttercups and one or two lingering bluebells. Wrens and finches appeared in abundance, all going about their lawful occasions, while red kites wheeled overhead with their peculiar mewing cry. We glimpsed a hare and smelled where a fox had lain; the ewes called after their lambs and the lambs, very properly, ignored their mothers, save when a trip to the milk bar seemed in order. It was all very ordinary and all very extraordinary at the same time. The Psalmist understood this well when he wrote of the landscape of Israel with its rabbits and goats and doves and swallows. ‘Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ This morning, I rather think it did.
I didn’t know Osama bin Laden had been killed until I returned to Britain on Wednesday last week. Immediately, it seemed, the world was abuzz with claim and counterclaim about what actually happened. Whose account should we trust? Whose account COULD we trust? At the same time, the endless rumble about ‘the financial services industry’ (banks to you and me) continues to raise questions about trust; so too does the debate about the limits of freedom of the press. The Catholic Church is still feeling the effects of the lack of trust that inevitably follows from what we have learned about the abuse of children and adolescents. Everywhere we look, it seems, public trust is very low. Is it any wonder that bad faith and lack of trust often mark our private lives too?
For me, the problem with that question is that it presupposes that public morality shapes and determines our private codes of morality and honour. It is true that some people take their ideas of right and wrong from what is legal or not (though I have to say that does not seem to apply to speed limits). That is why time and energy is devoted to promoting/opposing/repealing legislation which touches on human rights, or what are perceived to be such. Fundamentally, however, it is our private ‘world view’ which shapes our attitude to the public sphere. If there is a lack of trust, and even more, a lack of trustworthiness, in our private lives, it is absurd to expect better in the public sphere. If we bend the truth, why shouldn’t others? Isn’t that why we sometimes doubt what we are told, rather than because we think others are trying to hoodwink us?
I was sickened by what bin Laden did in life, but I have also been sickened by the gloating that has followed his death. The desire to circulate photographs of his dead body to ‘prove’ that he is dead is nothing of the sort. It is a manifestation of something I’d call glee, a measure of the lack of trust in our public institutions and, by implication, an admission of the lack of trustworthiness in our own lives. Overstated? Possibly. Trust is a beautiful quality, well worth cultivating. When it is lost or destroyed, something very precious passes from the earth.
Digitalnun is safely back from Rome (as of 10.00 pm last night, after a sticky drive from the airport). Unfortunately, the smartphone we got to try to keep up with emails while away was unable to secure enough coverage to do the job so there are currently 577 emails sitting in the inboxes of the accounts I myself usually deal with (not to mention the spam folder.) A few are resends of previously sent emails, suggesting that the autoresponder didn’t work (or was ignored?); some are sent knowing I was to be away and saying that they are for me to deal with on my return (please don’t do that again if you can help it: the mail programme buckles after the first 300 and as the emails and their attachments are now all on the smartphone too, I am quietly tearing my wimple this morning.)
I will work through the emails as quickly as I can but, as I’m sure you understand, there are other urgent matters also clamouring for attention, so please bear with me. If you don’t hear for a few days, please don’t email again. We are not being rude, we just don’t have the nunpower to deal with everything instantly.
The Emmaus story (Luke 24. 13-35) is much loved by Christians. Most of us long to have the scriptures opened to us by Jesus himself and one often hears people commenting along the lines of ‘If only . . . .’ The trouble with that particular ‘if only’ is that it is nonsense. The scriptures are ALWAYS opened to us by Jesus. Whether it be through prayerful reading by ourselves, with the grace of the Holy Spirit to assist us, or through the teaching of those entrusted with authority to do so, we can only make sense of the scriptures because Jesus reveals himself in and through them. He is present, not absent. We seem to find that very difficult to take on board. ‘What would Jesus do?’ we ask, forgetting that the real question is, ‘What is Jesus doing; what does he want to do through you/me/us/them?
I think today’s gospel is particularly encouraging for those of us who might be labelled ‘professionals’ in the religious sphere. We go around with our eyes half-closed sometimes, not expecting to be surprised. We miss the glory that is spread before us. Perhaps today we could open our eyes to the divine light a little more fully, a little more expectantly. The Risen Christ is here and now and walks with us every day.
Yesterday was the forty-eighth anniversary of Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s important encyclical on world peace and justice; today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space-flight. Half a century ago we worrying about a nuclear conflict between the west and the Soviet Union but we had great faith in the ability of science to help create a better world. We still believed in progress. Today we are worrying about nuclear leaks from Fukushima and watching the violence in Africa and the Middle East with an uneasy sense that maybe, just maybe, climate change and the pressure on natural resources may prove to be even more damaging to human life and happiness. We are not sure what we believe any more, are we?
I am tempted to say that I suspect it has always been so, that every generation has its own fears and dark terrors that may look a little exaggerated to the next. The twentieth century should have brought peace and prosperity to more people than ever before in history. It didn’t; it brought war and death and deprivation on a scale previously unknown. I am sceptical about the way in which we recall some events, the way we pile up anniversary on anniversary without necessarily distinguishing between them. ‘Those who do not learn the lessons of history are fated to repeat them.’ Perhaps. Sometimes I wonder whether the trouble is that we are too busy marking and partying in the name of celebration to do the learning.
It’s wonderful how a few hours of warm sunshine and clear skies can put a smile on people’s faces, and slightly disturbing to acknowledge how much the weather influences our mood and the way in which events unfold. Historically, it tends to be the ‘forgotten factor’. From the outcome of battles to changes in population distribution we can blame the weather. Isn’t it nice to know our national obsession, the stuff of our small-talk, is actually deeply significant? The next time you pass the time of day by remarking on the weather, stop and think: you are touching the untouchable, talking about that which shapes much of our lives, as unpredictable, unknowable and uncontrollable as, dare I say it, God himself.
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.
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.
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.
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?