On Being Oneself

A few weeks ago, when I posted some thoughts about online engagement, my friend Tim Hutchings very sensibly asked whether some of my suggestions didn’t cancel themselves out, making us less ‘ourselves’ online than we are offline. I think the specific question he raised was addressed in the comments, but there is a bigger question that concerns all of us, whether we go online or not. How can we be ourselves in a world that, by and large, is always pressuring us to be something other than we are? The world of advertising wants us to be thinner, richer, more ‘stylish’ than most of us could ever dream of being (i.e to buy what it is selling). The world of Church wants us to be . . . what exactly?

I often ask myself what the homilist thinks he is doing (in the Catholic Church, the sermon is always preached by a priest or deacon, who must be male). Do the admonitions to be more prayerful, more generous, more this or that really affect us? When I’m exhorted to act in a certain way ‘because you are a nun’, does it ever change me? I have to say that, by and large, I stick with being me, trusting that God doesn’t make junk and sees something incomparably wonderful in each one of us, even me. That isn’t a pretext for not trying to be more prayerful, generous, etc (see above), I think it is to recognize a fundamental truth: we go to heaven, if we go at all, as ourselves — smudged with sin, only half-understanding, full of contradictions, the person God created and redeemed. Being oneself is ultimately the only way in which to give God glory.

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The Eco Approach

Anything and everything (except sin, of course) can reflect the beauty and holiness of God. The trouble is, we tend to substitute the beauty and holiness of things for the beauty and holiness of God. Even in a monastery, you can find people so determined to save the earth that they overlook or undervalue the importance of persons. I find that troubling. It is a reminder that any good cause can take over our lives, giving us a lop-sided view of things. Yes, let us do all we can to preserve the beauty of earth and sky, rivers and seas; let us do all we can to preserve the biodiversity of the planet; but let’s not forget that there is only one creature made in the image and likeness of God.

To preserve our humanity in the face of all that militates against it is also an ‘ecological endeavour’, one on which much of the future of the planet depends. If that sounds a bit pompous, this question may make my meaning clearer: unless we work together to roll back the consequences of some of our more stupid actions, can the earth recover of itself? We (most of us) accept that we are the problem. May we not also be the solution?

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Macro Finance, Micro Finance and the Common Good

The G20 meeting is focusing attention on the fragility of the world economy again. At one level, it beggars belief that a country as small and ‘economically insignificant’ as Greece could jeopardize the whole of the Eurozone and thereby the world; but so it is. The U.S. and U.K. economies are faltering and China has made it clear that with high inflation at home and a stagnant manufacturing sector, it is in no mind to come to anyone’s rescue. These are issues of macro finance, but they translate into the detail of micro finance. They decide whether individuals have enough to eat, whether they can afford adequate heating or healthcare or education. The link between the macro and the micro isn’t always obvious, but like the bullet fired at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, small actions can have huge consequences.

The concept of the common good isn’t particularly difficult to grasp, but by and large, we interpret it to mean what we are comfortable with. It is easy to point the finger at others and say, they are enjoying an unfair share of the world’s resources, but I suspect that could be said of most of us living in the west. I am not sure what we ‘little people’ do in moments of crisis such as those we are living through. Ultimately, I think each one of us must ask ourselves how we can contribute to the common good and stick with it. We may think that what we do is very trivial, but even a cup of cold water given with love is a key to the Kingdom.

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Anniversaries

Each of us carries within a personal calendar: this day is important because I met so-and-so, because I did such-and-such, because something or other happened. Despite the proliferation of social media and the ease of sharing online, these personal calendars tend to be very private. Earlier this week a friend asked me to pray for his mother on 29 October and I said I’d have no difficulty remembering because today is also the anniversary of my own mother’s death. He was immediately contrite, as though he should have known, but why should he? He was empathizing with me from the way he would feel had the situation been reversed. That was generous. It was also kind, literally, expressing kinship with me.

Clock time and emotional time do not always coincide, nor do we always know why someone who is usually bright and bouncy is a little sad or subdued. Sometimes we need to ask; sometimes we don’t. The one thing that is never out of place is kindness and a prayer.

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Gaddafi Reconsidered

Earlier this year I blogged about tyranny and the Gaddafi regime. You can find the post here. I haven’t changed my opinion about the legitimacy of resisting tyranny, but this morning I find myself considering another problem, one that has been prompted by the expressions of glee and horrifying photos circulating on the internet. There is something not quite right about what is going on: ‘Every man’s death diminishes me.’ True, but it is more than that. As a Catholic, I believe that praying for the dead, ALL the dead, is a sacred duty because we share a common humanity and because, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all children of the one Father.

Gaddafi alive was monstrous; Gaddafi dead is pathetic. If we forget our own humanity in face of that, what hope is there for us?

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Money and Madness

With inflation at 5.2%, interest rates the lowest they’ve ever been, and unemployment, especially among the young, assuming quite frightening proportions, the ‘other-worldly’ message of the Churches can seem far removed from reality. In vain we argue that it is the true reality: that we are more than the sum of what we possess, infinitely more than what may ‘possess’ us. But our words sound hollow, especially when most of us are involved in fund-raising for this or that. Our language of gift and tithe is alien to many. Are we mad or simply a bit thick, unable to comprehend the new world economic order in which the haves will tend to acquire more and the have-nots to have less and less? Wasn’t it ever so?

Yes and no. The perfect community of Acts 4 has always left me unconvinced. We’re fallen creatures and it shows. The best we can hope to do is to embrace a frugal lifestyle that allows us to be generous to others. We must learn to love not having as once we loved having. One of the great things about being a nun is that we can really live the dispossession of the gospels. Here at Hendred it’s no fiction: the community finances are permanently on a knife-edge, but we still aim to be as hospitable as possible. We don’t experience the poverty of many in the so-called Third World, but by many of the indices used to assess poverty in Britain, we are down there with the best of them, and I myself wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It is when one is utterly dependent on the mercy of God that one knows true freedom. The trouble is, most of us don’t really want to be free. We prefer the chains of habit and possession. Maybe the rather grim economic future we all face will make us think again about our priorities: we may not have much money, but perhaps the very lack of it will help us regain our sanity.

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The Banana Index

Yesterday Michael Blastland published an article on how we view statistics, using bananas as an indication of radiation hazard (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15288975). His point was serious but engagingly made, especially as it followed so closely on the ‘Blackberry crumble’ which gave rise to some excellent quips. Autumn is the season of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ so I wonder what other fruits we could use to measure other hazards. Any ideas? And please, of your charity, don’t rate the G20 meeting in banana skins. That one’s been done already.

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Laughter in the Cloister

It’s Saturday, you’re short of time, and St Benedict has just a few words to say to you today: ‘The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written: “The fool raises his voice in laughter.”‘ You are probably thinking, ‘He can’t be serious. Life without laughter would be miserable,’ and you’d be right. To understand this short section of the Rule, you need to understand the kind of laughter Benedict is talking about, the resonances in the scripture he quotes (Sirach 21.20) and the oblique reference to the Institutes of Cassian, IV.39.10.

We think of laughter as a simple, joyous expression of amusement or delight. There is nothing nasty about it. Such laughter is not condemned by Benedict. A sense of humour is, as I indicated a few days ago, a great blessing in monastic life, and I am quite convinced that there are deliberate touches of humour in the Rule. The laughter Benedict rejects is, first, the laughter of disbelief, such as Sara laughed when she was told that she would conceive in her old age. It is, secondly, the laughter associated with scurilitas, a word for which we have no exact equivalent in modern English, the laughter associated with obscenity and cruelty.

In scripture the fool is one who lacks knowledge of God and is morally adrift, who does not believe God and goes wrong because of his disbelief. Benedict doesn’t want fools in his monastery. He doesn’t want obscenity or cruelty, either; and he knows that what begins as a good, clean joke can, on occasion, lead to something less innocent, destructive of both the individual and community. So, he is telling us this morning to be aware of the pitfalls, to use humour in the right way, that it may be a blessing not a curse.

It is precisely this thoughtful, considered approach to everyday things that makes the Rule of Benedict a useful guide to living a Christian life. Laugh on, but let it be with a laughter you are not ashamed of before God.

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Control of Speech

Earlier this week I wrote about silence, but control of the tongue, which Benedict addresses in the portion of the Rule we read today, RB  7. 56 to 58, refers to something different. It is, so to say, a preparation for silence, a precondition. It requires effort, self-knowledge, discipline; and it is an essential component of humility because, of course, we naturally think our own ideas and viewpoints interesting, worth sharing with others. To choose not to speak or write (or blog or tweet or whatever), is not an act of negativity but a deliberate choice of something other, what Benedict elsewhere calls taciturnitas, restraint in speech.

Now the interesting thing about restraint in speech is that it implies understanding and communication, but sometimes without words, without being voiced, and at other times a very careful choice of words, an apt expression of what we think or believe. The words we do speak must always be good and wholesome, such as build up. To ensure that they are, we need time for reflection. How many of us have spoken before we thought and lived to regret it? What Benedict is urging upon us today is precisely that weighing of our words which will sometimes lead us to speak out and at other times to keep quiet. It is all about speech, not silence; and until we have learned something about speech, I do not think we can ever begin to understand silence.

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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