What Price Unity and Justice?

The first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly a trending topic on Twitter right now. There is much more interest in Brexit, the contents of that mysterious letter from North Korea and the Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident. Yet the theme chosen for this year’s reflections, ‘Justice, justice only shall you follow,’ (from Deuteronomy 16. 20), is certainly worth thinking about in a wider context.

For the Church, justice is a matter of right order* —the obedience of faith— and can never be an optional extra, something to which we pay lip-service but blithely ignore in practice. It is willed by God, and the full force of Christ’s prayer for unity must be felt by each and every one of us before it can take effect in our lives. As Christians we must pray and work for unity, which can only be achieved if we are prepared to let go of every personal and institutional obstacle we have put in its way. As I have argued elsewhere, that does not mean ‘lowest common denominator’ unity. Justice, right order, both require the foundation of truth and love, and we do not build well if we try to minimise these. At the same time, we must recognize that we put up barriers only grace can topple.

So, how do Brexit, Kim Yong-chol and the Duke of Edinburgh fit in? Let’s take Brexit first. If the British media are to be believed, our politicians suspect their E.U. counterparts of harbouring all kinds of wicked designs and knavish tricks intended to make life tough for the U.K. The possibility of exiting the E.U. without a deal (significantly, no one wants to call it an agreement) must be maintained, say some, as a bargaining counter. Do we really think the other members of the E.U. are, essentially, duplicitous? If so, on what grounds? Is it just to impute ultimate bad faith to another, because that is surely what one is doing if one does not accept that all parties are trying to attain what is best for everyone.

In the same way, diplomatic manoeuvres have to be viewed with caution, especially when one considers the history between the U.S.A. and North Korea, but speculation about what is intended can sometimes mislead. Justice requires a degree of open-mindedness that can be difficult to maintain. No doubt there will be much reading between the lines and calculation of risk and advantage, but it is in the world’s interest to give peace a chance, surely? And as for the Duke of Edinburgh, it seems everyone has rushed to conclude that he was at fault and should now hang up his car keys, along with every elderly driver in Britain today. Doesn’t justice demand that we wait to hear the police verdict on responsibility? One can’t deny that age does have a bearing on road accidents, but is it only the elderly who are at fault? Don’t the statistics suggest that the young are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents?

You may think I have strayed too far from the theme of Christian unity, but the point is that Christian unity does not exist in a vacuum, anymore than justice does. Both have to be lived; both have practical effects on and in society; and both exact a price. One of the questions we each need to ask ourselves this morning is, what price are we prepared to pay for a just society and for the unity of the Church. The inequalities we encounter every day in a world where some enjoy abundance while others starve cannot be brushed under some mental carpet, nor can the attitudes we adopt be allowed to run on unexamined. We are responsible beings. As we pray for unity and justice, let us remember that. We are responsible beings.

  • see Gregory VII on the meaning of iustitia, passim.
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A Question About Generosity

The other day someone asked me something to which I paid little attention at the time but which I have thought about since: how does someone with a life-limiting disease such as cancer feel/respond when they are asked to pray for someone who has a bad cold, or when they read some heartening story about someone who has ‘beaten’ the disease they themselves have. I can’t remember the answer I gave. I imagine it was along the lines of ‘All requests for prayer are taken seriously. What may seem minor to one person may loom large in the life of another. Our business is to pray, not to judge the person who asks.’ Anyone who has ever had a bad cold will heartily concur. It does feel like death — or what we imagine death to be like — and we do want people to pray for us.

The question about reacting to another’s good news is trickier. I’d like to say, I rejoice for them and give thanks; and most times I do. But I must confess there are times when the gladness and rejoicing have to be squeezed out rather than oozing freely. I recall with shame when a dear friend telephoned to tell me that what we had both feared might be a cancerous growth turned out not to be. As he said over and over again, ‘Thank God, it’s not cancer!’ part of me was echoing the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Of course I rejoiced for mt friend, but I would like to be free of my own leiomyosarcoma and it would be dishonest not to admit that my gladness was tinged with more than a dollop of . . . not envy exactly, but something very like it. There was definitely a green tinge to my rejoicing.

We are so often urged to be generous. In origin, the word means to be noble, magnanimous, unstinting. Unfortunately, we tend to limit it to more prosaic meanings. We talk about being generous with money or time and conveniently forget that before we can be either we must be magnanimous, big-hearted. Of the three gifts the Magi brought to Jesus, surely the gold is most clearly a sign of love and generosity. Even today, gold is regarded as precious, a symbol of the desire to lavish the costliest of gifts on the beloved. But, alas for us, we are called upon to lavish the gold of our hearts on those who are not necessarily beloved (or at least, not as beloved as perhaps they ought to be). We are called upon to be generous to all. It may not be money or time we have to give. It may be something as simple as a smile of welcome, a listening ear, a small kindness that goes virtually unnoticed. We are called upon to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who grieve; in short, to look beyond ourselves and find and worship Christ in the other. I hope the next time I read one of those ‘I beat cancer’ stories, I shall do exactly that.

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New Year Resolutions

Already the New Year is beginning to look a little bedraggled. Christmas decorations have been taken down, trees lie in wet clumps beside the recycling bins, and the message of peace and goodwill to all has been drowned out by political spats, military coups and horrific violence. Yesterday, while we were celebrating the wonderful solemnity of Epiphany, a few brave spirits dressed in lycra passed by on shiney new bicycles, determination to get fit writ large upon their faces. I shuddered and averted my gaze, because I don’t really do New Year resolutions, certainly not the kind that require effort from lungs and muscles. Instead I read a number of comments about the old tradition of chalking one’s doors for Epiphany, then wondered how many would be observing today as Plough Monday. Away from the countryside, there aren’t many ploughs to bless, though I daresay we could (nearly) all dance to mark what was once the beginning of the agricultural year.

There is, of course, a connection between New Year resolutions, Plough Monday and life as a Benedictine — patience. No New Year resolution brings instant results; even in these days of GM crops and GPS tracking and assessment, farmers still have to wait to see the fruit of their toil; and as for being a Benedictine, that takes a whole lifetime to achieve. Today we read the final section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict in which he assures us that we ‘shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may be deemed worthy to share also in his Kingdom’ (RB Prol 50). It is a task that lasts usque ad mortem, until death. In the next 73 chapters Benedict will spell out how to give practical effect to our desire to follow Christ. Some of it will be difficult; some of it clean contrary to our own ideas; but it is advice we can trust because it has produced century after century of holiness. We can safely say of St Benedict that there is nothing weird or whacky about his teaching, no mendacious promises of instant fixes for what is wrong with our souls. He offers us only a plain, perservering pursuit of peace: a life of prayer, work and service in community. It will be costly, but the reward is great.

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Fitting Everything In

I sometimes wonder how other people manage to fit everything in. They look after their families, do their jobs, care for house and garden and STILL have time to read, write, watch videos and cultivate all kinds of hobbies, from extreme sports to needlepoint. By contrast I, who ought to have all the time in the world, am in a perpetual state of trying to keep up. Could it be that I exaggerate the ability of others to remain on top of things and underestimate my own ability to do the things that really matter?

Today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict (Prol. 14–20) goes straight to the point. A Benedictine is, by definition, a worker for God (Prol. 14), motivated by a desire for life (Prol 15) — life which, in all its fullness, can only be obtained by the renunciation of evil and the pursuit of goodness. So, we are exhorted to turn away from evil speech, do good, and seek after peace (Prol. 17). That will prepare us to hear the Lord’s invitation to follow the way of life (Prol. 20). Simple, isn’t it? Only, most of us don’t find it easy but almost impossibly hard, which is why we have to try and try again, spending our whole lives listening for that invitation in the midst of all the other activity we undertake. However much we want to hear and heed the voice of the Lord, we still need a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on our tables; importantly, we still need one another if we are to grow in holiness.

For the monk or nun, therefore, the challenge of fitting everything in remains. The only difference is motivation and approach — how and why we do things, rather than what we do. We ought not to be acting from selfish motives — what’s best for me, or even what’s best for my community — but from more altruistic ones — what’s best for everyone; and the way in which we do things ought to be less of a hectic scramble. I say ‘ought’ because we all fall short of the ideal. Perhaps that is a good thing. Those super-organized beings we admire from afar can be rather difficult to live with, making saints of everybody else rather than themselves!

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Looking Both Ways: 2019

Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.
Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.

Today is the first day of January, a month which, like the old pagan god Janus, looks two ways, back into the past and forwards into the future. It marks the beginning of the secular year, one more in that vast chain of being that binds us to all who have gone before and all who will come after. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, herself the hinge between the Old and New Covenants; and finally, it is the Octave Day of Christmas, a day that symbolizes both completion and a new beginning. So many glittering paradoxes, so many ideas to try to understand! Perhaps we could think about just one.

The Incarnation marks the intersection of time and eternity, the point at which the Creator enters his creation in a unique way, but it is dependent upon the consent and co-operation of a single human being, Mary. That fact alone should give us pause. It is a rewriting of the Magnificat, as the humility of God meets the greatness of Mary’s response and we are saved. Today is a day for gratitude, for rejoicing, and for renewed hope. We cannot change the past; the future is unknown; but we are given the present in which to ‘do now what may profit us for all eternity’, as St Benedict says.

May 2019 be filled with the blessings of peace, joy and unity for all.

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Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

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The Joy of Wonder

Sandstone sculpture from northern France, XIV century,
William Randolph Hearst Collection (50.33.9)

There are some lines from the collect we use for Christmas Vigils that always send a shiver down my spine:

Your eternal Word came down from heaven in the silent watches of the night, and now your Church is filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. (referring to Wisdom 18. 14–15)

They take us away from the sentimentality of ‘Jingle Bells’ and “Santa’ hats and plunge us deep into the mystery of God. All very well for those who dwell in monasteries, you may think, but for most of us the warmth and humanity of a family Christmas is a mixture of sentimentality and church and a thousand and one other things. True, and there is nothing wrong and much that is very right in that; but not everyone has a family Christmas to enjoy or grumble about. The news this morning is filled with stories of those made suddenly homeless by the Indonesian tsunami or other catastrophes across the globe. Indeed, we do not have to stray far from our own front doors to find the homeless, the sick or the suffering, for whom Christmas is not at all the brilliant superabundant feast of Dickensian myth. When there is no room for sentimentality, we are thrown back on the mystery, on the truth of the Incarnation and the meaning of Christ’s birth for each and every one of us.

For me that mystery is expressed in the line about the Church being filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. Wonder is not fashionable. It has no street cred. It is the reverse of ‘cool’, yet wonder is one of the most generous and joyful of emotions. We are surprised with wonder at the unexpected or even the familiar seen or heard as for the first time. It is not dependent on our circumstances. I remember once being moved almost to tears by the luminous beauty of a raindrop slowly coursing down a window-pane. At the time, I was busy with many things, distracted and irritable, but my attention was suddenly held and a rainy day transformed by that glimpse of loveliness. Christmas Day is a little like that. At one level, it is a day like any other; at another, it is a day out of time, a day that allows us a glimpse of eternity and of God himself.

Today we are invited to wonder at the miracle of God made man, the mighty Word reduced to a baby’s wail. This we can celebrate no matter where we are or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Too much family or too little, feasting or forced to fast, our God is near to us. All glory, honour and praise be to Him for ever and ever!

And a very happy Christmas to all my readers!

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A Moment of Peace

Christmas Eve in most households is anything but peaceful. Even the most organized seem to be full of last-minute activity, from cooking to present-wrapping, to say nothing of the long treks homeward many a son or daughter and family will make in order to celebrate together with other family members. In the monastery there is no present-wrapping or travel to worry about, but the preparation of a complex liturgy which goes on throughout the Octave and a more than usually ample dinner for Christmas Day itself, can be demanding, especially when unexpected visitors turn up or those in distress telephone in search of comfort. How do any of us find peace in all this? The conventional wisdom, to go with the flow, is at best a half-truth. Peace is not to be identified with the absence of struggle or a kind of mental or moral opting-out, nor can we glibly assert that embracing reality, whatever that means in this context, is the answer.

There is only one way to find peace on Christmas Eve and that is to allow the Prince of Peace into our hearts and minds. It means consciously stopping, at least for a few moments, all our frantic activity and saying, ‘Lord, you see how busy I am. If I forget you, please don’t forget me!’ In that acknowledgement of our inability to slow down or halt the Christmas rush, we are being honest; and, instead of turning the Lord away for a time when we think we will be better able to receive him, we are inviting him into our chaotic present, admitting it is far from perfect, but wanting to be with him, and him with us, all the same.

To stop, even for a moment, is not easy, especially if there is no-one else to do whatever it is that we are doing. Most of us need to use our imagination more. Going from one room to another, clearing a table, climbing the stairs, washing-up or loading the dishwasher — all provide moments we can use to turn to the Lord. And if anyone feels self-conscious about doing so, a little lonely in their desire to keep their focus on the Lord when everyone else expects them to be full of a festive spirit that seems to have nothing much to do with the Incarnation, I hope they will find encouragement in this thought. Throughout the world there are monks, nuns and countless others praying the prayer they themselves would pray if they had time. The Communion of Saints is not an abstraction. It is part of the new order ushered in by Christmas, one of the precious gifts our Saviour gives to the world.

May God grant you and those you love a very happy Christmas.

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The Cry of Anguish

‘The hardest thing in life,’ wrote the young André Gide in his journal of 1890, ‘is to be sincere.’ Our generation might amend that slightly: the hardest thing in life is to distinguish the sincere from the fake or merely opportune. Sometimes, even our prayer seems tinged with insincerity. Do I truly want what I say I do in this prayer, to be completely converted to the Lord/forgiving/generous or whatever, or am I like St Augustine, desiring chastity, but definitely not yet?

During the past few days we have been considering a few phrases from the ‘O’ antiphons. Their simplicity and directness are immediately attractive, but then we find something in them that requires effort because it has elements alien to our current ways of thought. Take today’s antiphon’:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster. 
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the One for whom the nations long and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

The piling up of all those grandiloquent titles is excellent theology and history, but, if we are honest, doesn’t it make God seem a little remote? We are not accustomed to addressing him as though he were some Eastern potentate. We are more comfortable with the idea of God as loving Father — a kind of SuperDad perhaps. We ignore the obvious, that God is as far above our understanding as the heavens are above the earth, and condemn the unfamiliar as insincere. But consider the antiphon’s final phrase, ‘Come and save us, Lord our God.’ Nowhere else in the sequence do we make that direct reference to the Lord our God Our last word, so to say, is very simple and sincere: it is the cry of anguish uttered from the heart: Come and save us, Lord our God. We spend our lives learning that we cannot save ourselves. All our fine words, all our magnificent gestures, come down to this: we need a Saviour, the one who will first appear among us in the fragility of a baby’s body on Christmas Night. Let us pray that he will come to us and save us.

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A King! We Want a King!

There is a curious irony in the fact that it is often the most allegedly democratic of peoples that countenance the most absolutist forms of government. No names, no pack-drills, as they say, but I can think of two much in the news of late. It reminds me of the old Israelite cry, ‘Give us a king! We want to be like other nations!’ (cf 1 Samuel 8). God did give Israel a king, but it was not an unmitigated success. What are we to make, then, of today’s ‘O’ antiphon?

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.

The translation is awkward, but I wanted to preserve the obvious scriptural references and, rather than smooth over the difficulties of qui facis utraque unum or even hominem, leave them in plain sight. Sometimes we need to be challenged by the theology of a prayer rather than whittling it down to something we can digest and endorse. However, it was not those phrases that caught my attention this morning so much as the opening invocation of God as Rex Gentium, King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles. It is an ambiguous phrase. On the one hand it proclaims God’s lordship over all; on the other, it claims God for the gentiles, those of us outside the Covenant, the slightly dodgy folk of least account who do not keep the Law. We know that we have been made sharers in the Covenant — Christ is indeed the corner-stone that unites both Jews and Gentiles in the family of God — but it is by way of privilege, a privilege we are apt at times to forget.

It can be hard not to think that the world as we know it is disintegrating. The Church is in disarray over the sex abuse scandals that have destroyed the trust of so many; our politicians seem incapable of putting the interests of others before their own pet plans and projects; the people we have always relied upon seem less dependable than they were. Into this mess comes a tiny, vulnerable baby, born in an obscure corner of the world yet bearing the greatest of titles, who will redeem the world; and we, smudged with sin and endlessly misunderstanding as we are, are privileged to share in the salvation He offers. Our prayer today is not for ourselves alone but for the whole world. The King of the Nations is Lord of all that is.

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