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?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Living With Stress

A tweet from @Deborahhollamby caught my eye this morning. She was talking about the impact stress can have on our health. Anyone who suffers from an immune disorder knows how damaging stress can be, but what exactly is stress and how long have we been subject to it? I can’t find any references to ‘stress’ in the sense that we use the word earlier than the twentieth century; so is it a modern phenomenon? A case of re-minting an old word to give it a keener edge?

‘Distress’ has been around a lot longer; and to me, at least, its root meaning, from the Latin distringere, to pull or stretch apart, is both clearer and more evocative. We all know the feeling of being torn apart by worry or conflicting duties or events in our lives which make us unhappy. Is the way we cope with distress fundamentally different from the way in which we cope with stress?

Whether we call it stress or distress, we all have to live with imperfect circumstances that can make huge physical and emotional demands on us, but I do think monastic life offers some guidelines for dealing with it that should be better known. I have often mentioned that end-of-the-day review (examination of conscience) which allows us consciously to accept both the good and the bad and turn it all over to God. That act of turning things over to God isn’t a cop out. It is a recognition that we aren’t in charge, God is. When we take ourselves from centre stage, we allow God more scope; and that must be good.

It isn’t only the end-of-day review that helps. Every time we go into choir to sing the Divine Office, we sign ourselves with the Cross and with holy water. That is a powerful reminder both of our baptism and of our desire to stand before God with clean hearts, free from anything that might be unworthy of him. Sometimes we don’t just have to purify our hearts, we have to pacify them as well. Letting go is often hard to do, but being regularly called back into the Prayer of Christ is a way of freeing ourselves from the bonds that stress (or distress) create.

For those who don’t live in monasteries, this could seem a bit remote from reality; but most of us do have odd moments during the day when we have no particular duty or job to do. Such moments can be used for turning to the Lord, creating out of the chaos of our lives something that is quiet and still. If all else fails and the demons continue to haunt us, we can remember that Jesus’ quiet time was in Gethsemane and it was on the Cross that he finally, irrevocably turned everything over to God.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Being Special

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 60 On Priests who May Wish to Live in the Monastery, is not just for priests and monastics. It is for all who are special or think they are or are considered such by others. In short, it is really for all of us, because in a few short sentences Benedict gets to the nub of a problem that is always cropping up in society: how far does talent, wealth or any other advantage set us apart from others. His answer is, not at all. Those who have received more should give an example of humility, and that is valid whether we live in a monastery or not.

Commentators are still picking over the recent riots and advancing various theories about why they happened. Careful readers will have noticed that I made some very similar remarks about rioters and looters as I have made in the past about bankers and politicians. The sad fact is that the greed and criminality we have witnessed on our streets is really no different from the greed and criminality we have witnessed in the boardrooms of our banks or in the expenses claims of some of our politicians. If, now, there are calls for severe punishment for those who ran amok earlier this week, shouldn’t there be renewed calls for something of the same for those who have set such a bad example in the past? No one is so special that he or she is exempt from moral responsibility.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Rag-Bag Thoughts by Ragged Nun

It has been an ‘interesting’ week, hasn’t it? Week-ends don’t happen in monasteries. In fact, we are gearing up to receive a parish group here on Saturday, and Sunday is always full; so there won’t be much time to pause and look back on the past few days. One of the distinguishing characteristics of monastic life is that we try to ‘digest’ the day’s events on the day itself rather than postpone them to some future time which may never come. Hence Benedict’s insistence that, before the day’s end, we should make peace with anyone we have had a dispute with. We reflect on the day, giving thanks for graces received, asking for enlightenment, pardon or strength. It is a time for honesty. If we are feeling ragged and running on empty, we need to acknowledge the fact because God cannot fill a closed heart or mind.

Perhaps Friday, which is the end of the working week for many people, would be a good day on which to think about the week past and bring it into one’s prayer. More than that, let’s not go home for the week-end without saying ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ or even, ‘that’s O.K., it’s been difficult, hasn’t it?’ Forgiveness can transform a situation as anyone who heard Tariq Jahan this week would agree.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail