Gracious Living

While shopping yesterday I noticed, almost subliminally, how many magazine covers deal with ‘gracious living’. Judging by the accompanying illustrations, gracious living could be summed up as a large house, swimming pool, fast car and plenty of alcohol. Add in permatan, perfect dentition and expensive clothes, and there you have it. Or rather, you don’t.

Gracious living surely has to do with grace, from the Latin gratia, and has its origins in what is pleasing and thankful. You will notice how many of the comments on yesterday’s post about living with uncertainty mention, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of gratitude. For a Christian, there is the further sense of grace as a divine gift, the free and unmerited favour of God. St Benedict is very keen on mindfulness of God, the sense that at every moment we are upheld by God’s mercy and love which inspire an answering response of gratitude and delight.

There is another meaning of grace often overlooked but rich in meaning: the short prayer of blessing and gratitude said before and after eating. A tiny, almost insignificant act in itself, it reminds us of God’s presence and action in our lives. Saying grace before we eat our baked beans won’t turn them into a gourmet delight, but it will make their consumption an act of gracious living.

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Living with Uncertainty

We crave certainty. We may like to think of ourselves as free spirits, ready to set off for outer Mongolia at the drop of a hat, but most of us, most of the time, prefer to know where we’ll sleep at night, where our next meal is coming from, that our legs and lungs will work predictably. Living with uncertainty is not, for most of us, a choice we would wish to make, yet most of our ‘certainties’ are nothing of the sort. We are, all of us, only a heartbeat away from eternity.

I think that is why Benedict urges us to ‘keep death daily before our eyes’. He is not being morbid or encouraging glumness. On the contrary, he wants us to recognize that every moment of life is a gift, even when hard or difficult. We are not in control, however much we like to think we are or want to be, so what is the point of worrying ourselves (literally) sick about things? It is not only riches but anxiety that chokes the growth of the Kingdom within us. With Lent just a few days away, perhaps we could start thinking about our Lenten resolutions as a way to recapture awareness of living daily by the mercy of God. That will involve more than giving up marmalade or some other delicacy. It will mean living with uncertainty.

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Whitney Houston and Untimely Death

You would think we would be used to it by now. Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, so many popular singers have died early, often as a result of addictive behaviours involving drink and drugs. In Whitney Houston’s case, there was the added tragedy of drugs ruining her voice long before it would have naturally faded. She had to live with that, day in day out, and who can guess what that knowledge cost her?

In the face of untimely death we are all a little subdued, a little sad. We may not have known the dead person, but we recognize that something is not quite right: the expected order of things has been overturned. The religious among us may whisper something about ‘God’s purposes’ but, whether we have faith or not, we must confront the reality of death. The life we know now must come to an end, and neither the moment nor the manner of it is for us to choose. ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ True, but let us not forget the grief of those who mourn and reflect on the ways in which society colludes with destructive behaviours. As we pray for Whitney Houston, let us also pray for all who are in thrall to drugs, alcohol or anything else that limits human freedom and dignity.

 

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Smile Jesus’ Love Through

A few days spent roaming about on behalf of the monastery may have addled my wits, or maybe I’m just getting sentimental (not a quality usually associated with me), but I woke up this morning thinking about smiles, the kind that use 22 muscles on the human face, or whatever.

Smiles communicate so much and yet so little. We have a whole vocabulary to suggest their various shades of meaning, from appeasing through supercilious to warm or even zany. Smiles which don’t reach the eyes or are inconsistent with the words being spoken trouble us greatly. By contrast, a smile from someone we love is treasured in the memory. Sometimes the smiles of strangers are, too. I remember one hot summer’s evening long ago when I was working at the Bodleian and thanked a very tired-looking librarian for the book she had just got me: the brilliance of her smile has remained with me as a reminder that even a simple ‘thank you’ can be just what someone needs to hear — or maybe the smile was just what I needed to receive.

You can’t force a smile. Those gruesome photographs splattered all over the web showing faces with hugely improbable smiles are testimony to that. A smile has to start from the inside and work its way out. ‘Smiling through’ isn’t an idle phrase, for use only in hard times. If eyes are the mirror of the soul, surely a smile is too? So, please don’t start a National Smile Day (there probably already is one); please don’t start contorting your face into a huge rictus every time you meet someone; just spend some time ensuring that what is inside is worth displaying. That is more challenging than may appear, and certainly not likely to appeal to sentimentalists. ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’, no. Smile Jesus’ love through, yes.

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Snowfall and Silence

Snow is beautiful to look at, but what I love best about it is its silence: great drifts of silence falling from the sky and hushing everything. The world is noisy and we sigh over the necessity of having to cope with incessant clamour, sometimes amazed to discover that the worst din of all is from within. Snow changes our perception of reality, transforming common objects into strange shapes and revealing the mystery hidden within the apparently ordinary. Lying white and still, it quietens the world around us so that our inner noise is heard for what it is: ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

May you be blessed with a day of great interior silence in which to wonder at the beauty of the snow and its Creator.

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St Paul and Silence

Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.

How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.

In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.

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Steadfastness

St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?

For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.

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Friends

We keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow being the feast of St Benet Biscop for us) so my thoughts naturally turn to friends. Friends, please note, not friendship. Friends are people — awkward, imperfect, challenging, delightful to be with; friendship is an abstraction, a way of thinking and reflecting on what friends are and mean.

Today let us give thanks for our friends in all their quirky individuality and pray that we may be better friends in return. Christ is always the third person present in any friendship, so let us be friends in a way that he would approve; and if we can think of any friends from whom we are estranged or whom we have neglected, let’s make an effort to put things right.

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Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.

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A Marmite Toast Moment

The last few weeks have been rather trying for the community (a classic British understatement, if ever there was one). As far as I can see, we can do nothing except put up with it as well as we can. I will therefore share with you the secret of maintaining a cheerful countenance in the face of disappointment and difficulty (though it won’t work in Scandinavia).

When the wine of life turns to vinegar and you feel knee-high to a worm, when prayer seems hollow and even the dog avoids you, there is only one thing for it: Marmite toast. That hot, savoury, tangy delight with its wicked afternote of forbidden saltiness will soothe the sore in spirit and revive the faltering courage of those sunk in gloom. If Delia Smith can do God for the spiritually hungry, surely nuns can do food for those down in the dumps? A ‘Marmite toast moment’ is so much better than giving in or giving up. Sometimes religion needs to take a very practical form. Taste and see!

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