Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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Vocations Crisis? What Crisis?

Recently, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Benedictine, I was told it was all right to blog about Easter and so on but better to stay off controversial subjects. Taken out of context, the remark might have seemed dismissive or even patronising. It wasn’t, but it has encouraged me to try to re-think how we approach the idea of vocation in the Church. Do we play safe and spiritualise it so that God does everything and the human person involved is reduced to a mere cypher? Or do we forget God entirely and concentrate on the human person so much that we become mired in an unhelpful kind of ‘vocational psychology’ that leads nowhere? Is there a way of reconciling the two, so that we are honest about the dynamic of vocation, not as it was in the past or as it might be in the future, but as it is now in 2019, with all that that implies?

I’ve written so much about vocation over the years that it is plain where I stand. Of course God takes the initiative, but there has to be a response — and that’s where the trouble comes. No vocation, whether to marriage, priesthood, consecrated life, singlehood, or whatever, is roses and rapture all the way, nor does any vocation exist in isolation from others or from the times in which we live. To ignore the demands of a particular vocation as it is now is as misleading as failing to speak about its blessings. I wonder how many parish priests will dutifully preach about the need for more priests this morning but dodge the question of how badly the Church’s reputation has been damaged by the revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up and the difficulty of living with that. Then again, how many will dare to speak of the joy their own experience of priesthood has brought them? A loss of confidence only too easily conveys itself to others. It is there, in that loss of confidence, that I would locate any ‘crisis of vocations’ today. I think I would go further and argue that any such crisis is really of our own making. We do not quite trust God to see us through without what has become familiar to us.

Among religious, I think the loss of confidence is sometimes palpable. Communities wax and wane (not always in that order, be it noted) and it probably does not help when those who have lived a particular kind of vocation for fifty or sixty years are blithely informed that they are either not traditional enough for some or too traditional for others — ‘traditional’ being one of those words used to signify both approval and disapproval. Then again, it is easy to latch onto  one or other aspect of consecrated life and make it the be-all and end-all. Among women, the wearing or not wearing of a habit or using a particular form of prayer is sometimes used as a test of orthodoxy, with results that can be comical when not disastrous. Again, it is our unease in the face of the loss of the familar that is the problem. We know the Spirit is always doing something new, but when confronted with the new, we are apt to take fright and draw back rather than seeing it as an opportunity, a genuine turning-point (which is what a crisis is). I can only say that most communities I know are making a good attempt to be true to their calling in the Church despite the difficulties and discouragement they sometimes encounter.

With that mention of the Church, we come to the heart of the matter. People sometimes feel  they are ’second best’ because they haven’t become priests or religious but discovered in the course of formation that they were meant for something else. Or they torture themselves because they have left active ministry or their order/congregation and the Church treats them with ambivalence, sometimes even suspicion.  I think myself that the important thing is to find one’s place in the Church because that is how we follow Christ, as Church. To be members of the Church is what we are all called to be. What membership involves will differ for each of us. Prayer, generosity and fidelity are required of us all, whatever form our  vocation takes. I have no hesitation in saying that being a Benedictine has been the supreme blessing of my life. I have no difficulty in encouraging others to become Benedictines themselves, but I would never hide from anyone the fact that to surrender oneself into the hands of the living God is to surrender oneself into a consuming fire. And fire, as we know, has its own way of dealing with things.

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On Being Monastic

Today’s feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny seems to have inspired people to tell me what being monastic means. I had been thinking about composing a Letter to a Would-Be Nun for Vocations Sunday, but few readers can be bothered with long posts, so perhaps I can abstract a few details and offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject in the context of today’s feast.

Cluny was Benedictine, and Benedict was very clear about what a monk should be and how he should behave. You will never find him using the word monk when someone falls below the expected standard or acts in a way inconsistent with the ideal: he uses the word brother instead. That tells us something quite important. When we act badly or let others down in some way, our relationship with the community is not broken but we forfeit the right to be thought of as expressing its values. Cluny ’s reputation in the earlier Middle Ages stood high precisely because it was a very disciplined organisation and its monks expressed the monastic ideal in ways that made a profound impact on others.

First of all, there was community, there was an abbot and there was a rule of life (the Rule of St Benedict) which each followed. Now, I may be guilty of partiality here, but I think what we know of Cluniac history (and we know a great deal) suggests that obedience to the Rule and to the abbot gave the community its characteristic qualities. The laus perennis for which it would become famous stemmed from its understanding of the role of liturgical prayer; its scholarship derived from its engagement with the culture of the times and its concern for hospitality; its wealth was the by-product of living simply and chastely. What do I mean when I say that?

For many people monasticism is a bit of a mystery, often a romantic mystery. It’s all about wearing funny clothes and inhabiting grand buildings. The reality tends to be disappointing. It’s really about lifelong single chastity, obedience, prayer and the service of others. The grand buildings, where they exist, are often a headache to the cellarer, who must try to keep the roof on and the rooms heated, Even the Divine Office can become a source of intense suffering to the musical, while the less talented usually discover some other mortification they were not expecting. The point is, the monks of Cluny stuck at being monks despite the difficulties they encountered, either individually or as a community. They persevered; and perseverance is one of those unshowy qualities many people practise in their marriages or ordinary lives but which a monk (or nun) must practise faithfully every day because the life of the community depends on the fidelity of its members The community exists for no other reason than to give glory to God. It does not exist to provide mutual support or upbuilding (though it does); it does not exist to allow individual talents to flourish (though they will); it exists solely for God. I cannot empgasize that enough.

Cluny demonstrated in a remarkable way how existing solely for God could be translated into structures and practices we continue to value today, though the abbey of Cluny itself is now a ruin. Most of us who try to live the monastic life would be the first to confess that we don’t live up to the ideal, but we do try; and sometimes all the love and the striving is in that daily trying. Be encouraged if you, too, are trying.

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Is Tolerance a Virtue?

One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?

Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?

Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.

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The Dies Non

Yesterday the community ground to a halt — by which I mean that, after all the sadness and sorrow of Holy Week and all the joyful alleluias of the Easter Octave, we had sung ourselves out, as it were, and needed to pause. Even Bro Dyfrig BFdeB lay flaked out in his man cave, barely able to wag a tail or stretch out his tongue for a treat (I exaggerate a trifle, perhaps). Even though we still have many thank-yous to write and business to attend to, I have invoked the only power worth having as prioress and declared today a Dies Non.

A Dies Non is one of the more useful monastic inventions. It means literally a day that isn’t. So we return to the time of our novitiate, when the only duties St Benedict lays on his novices are to eat, sleep and meditate — or, as we would say today, eat, sleep and pray (cf RB 58). That leaves us free to do whatever we find most relaxing or most neccessary.

People sometimes speak as though work were a problem, and overwork a particular difficulty of our age. That may be true for many, but I have a suspicion that leisure is even more of a challenge. We simply don’t know what to do with our time and feel we must always be filling it with busy-ness. The reasons are many and varied. We often seem to feel a need to justify ourselves, and we locate our value in what we do; or we have a horror of what we may find within if we allow ourselves to let go of all the usual props to our existence. I have known guests run away from the monastery before the end of their scheduled stay because they couldn’t cope with the silence or the demons that emerged from the depths when they tried to pray.

I confidently predict that our Dies Non will mean many little tasks around the monastery will get seen to because the community understands the difference between idleness and leisure and knows that the most important leisure-time of all is that which we spend in prayer — what St Bernard called otium negotissimum or very busy/active leisure. Something to think about, perhaps, even if you are very busy today?

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Easter Saturday 2019

Strong winds are rocking the garden this morning, twisting and turning the willows and propelling little bursts of fruit blossom this way and that. It is such a contrast to the calm beauty of Easter Sunday. In the course of a few days we have moved through so many different emotions — pity, fear, horror, rejoicing — that we need today and Mark’s brief summary of the events following the Resurrection before we can celebrate the fulfilment of the Octave tomorrow (Mark 16. 9-15). This is a day for taking stock, for quiet prayer and reflection if we can, for allowing the reality of Easter to take root in us and renewing the hope and faith we and the world badly need.

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Easter Friday 2019

It is breakfast on the beach time again. The disciples have been night-fishing: they were at a loose end and needed to occupy their time to distract themselves from their darker thoughts, but they have had no success. Then that mysterious figure appears on the shore, gives an odd instruction which nets a huge catch, and Peter does his best to escape. It is all very human and understandable. The difficulty comes when we begin to notice the more explicitly theological elements in the narrative (John 21.1–14) — the 153 fish (the square of the Trinity plus the square of the apostles according to some medieval commentators); the meal of bread and fish (recalling the passover meal as a symbol of the Eucharist as well as the miracle of the loaves and fishes) and so on and so forth.

I find particularly interesting the way in which the disciples react to what they see. ‘None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, “Who are you?”; they knew quite well it was the Lord.’ Once again we seem to have some doubt, some newness about the Risen Christ which confuses the disciples, who are nevertheless confirmed in their faith by what they experience. And there is Peter, poor hot-headed Peter, who has no doubts at all but simply wants to get away and hide his shame. He, at least, seems to recognize the person on the shore; but even though he knows who he is, he doesn’t fully understand the new relationsip of love and forgiveness that now exists between them. It will take the threefold question and commission of the next few verses to make that clear.

One of the difficulties many of us experience is believing that we are fogiven. We forget that God always takes the initiative. From the first moment of our becoming conscious of sin, of our wanting to repent, grace is at work in us. We don’t often feel any different after we have confessed and been absolved from our sins; but we are different. We are in a new relationship with the Lord, and no matter how often we fall, how often we sin again, his grace is always waiting for us. That is all very well in theory, but it is actually quite difficult to live by because it reminds us that we are not in control. And we do so love to be in charge! Today’s gospel teaches us that all our so-called certainties can be over-turned by God in a moment; that his abundance is never limited by our imagining.

This morning we see the disciples struggling to understand, and we struggle with them. Breakfast on the beach is never effortless.

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Easter Thursday 2019

Last night’s rain has scattered cherry blossom on the lawn, where it lies in great drifts of creamy loveliness. The Black Mountains are hidden behind a watery greyness while the air holds a kind of electric thrill of birdsong and raindrops. On just such a day, on just such an evening in spring, surely, Jesus came and stood among his disciples and showed them his wounds. And their reaction was very like our own when we are ‘hoping against hope’ but are finally allowed to see and hear what we have been longing for — the sight of someone we love whom we never expected to see again, the sound of their voice, perhaps the touch of their hand.

I love the fact that Jesus convinces the disciples that he is no ghost by eating a piece of grilled fish. There is something so human and natural about eating and a piece of grilled fish — cold, no doubt — is about as unappetizing to the imagination as it is possible to be. It suggests to me that our Lord was indeed a young man when he died and still retained a young man’s iron constitution and boundless appetite!

Be that as it may, there is a more important point here. We tend to think that everyone should have realised who the Risen Christ was. The empty tomb, the opening of the scriptures to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, the breaking of bread, weren’t these enough to show who he was? Apparently not. The empty tomb proclaimed the Resurrection, as Peter and John allowed, but actually meeting Jesus and recognizing him was beset with difficulty. Mary had to hear the sound of his voice before she truly knew him; the disciples had to see him eat before their eyes.

We too can be dumbfounded when we meet the Lord; we too can disbelieve for joy. The problem is not so much that we have failed to see him as that we have predetermined what our meeting should be like; sometimes, alas, we miss him even as we look for him because we do not recognize the reality before us. Something there to ponder, I suggest.

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Seeing Through Tears: Easter Tuesday 2019

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Who does not love today’s gospel in which Mary of Magdala meets the Risen Christ? There is something very moving about that encounter in the early morning, the dew still fresh upon the ground and Mary seeing him through a mist of tears. Are those tears the reason she does not recognize him at first but thinks he might be the gardener ‘in his stained and dirty kirtle,’ as Julian of Norwich describes him? Or do the tears allow her to see him clearly for the first time, as the New Adam — not so much a tiller of soil but as the giver of life itself? It is said that the Cross on Golgotha was planted where Adam’s skull lay buried. The Fruit it bore surpassed any known in Paradise.

This morning many tears are being shed throughout the world: in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, wherever death holds sway. But the Risen Lord still comes to meet us in our pain. His body bears the wounds of suffering and death for all eternity but they are transformed now into channels of life and peace for us. Let us cling to the hope they bring, not just to us but to the whole world.

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An Easter Drenched in Blood: 2019

As I was posting this morning’s prayer tweet, news came in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. Churches and hotels have been bombed and at least 137* are known to be dead. It was a bloody and brutal act, and there are fears that there is more to come. Yet we continue to sing ‘Alleluia’, to proclaim Christ’s triumph over sin and death, to assert that love and forgiveness are better than hatred and cruelty. Are we fools, living in a cosy world of make-believe; or are we clear-sighted, conscious of the reality of things and refusing to be daunted by evil or the lack of humanity we discover in ourselves and in others?

Note, I say in ourselves as well as others. If our pilgrimage to Easter has taught us anything, it must be that we are each capable of the most horrific evil. We are sinners in need of redemption; weak and fallible beings in need of a Saviour. This morning, as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, we pray for all Christian people, that we may have not only the courage of our faith but its compassion and forgiveness, too. So we can sing our ‘alleluias’, confident that the Risen Christ continues to be the source of our unity and peace, for he has shed his own blood for us and lives now to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. May he do so now, that the Father of all goodness may see and love in those dead and injured Sri Lankans ‘Christ lovely in limbs not his.’
ªnow 310.

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