Religion and Politics

My American friends know that I often find U.S. politics bewildering, especially the way in which party politics and religion seem to intertwine. In this country, I think most priests and consecrated persons are careful to observe the party neutrality the Catechism of the Catholic Church enjoins and are often perplexed by its absence among some in the States. That said, it is important that everyone should think about the moral and socio-economic issues involved in making political choices. The religiously-inlined will always look to their pastors and those they think of as having particular expertise for help in making such choices. But what is the point at which shared reflection and attempts at guidance become electioneering, i.e. urging others to vote for this person rather than that, for one party rather than another? It is a difficult line to tread, especially as I think most Americans are much more ‘definite’ in the expression of opinion than the British are.

As we pray for all those involved in the American presidential election, I suggest we should reserve a special place in our prayers for priests and consecrated persons, that what they say and do may be in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In saying that, I don’t want to open this post up to a political ding-dong. The only way I know of letting the Holy Spirit into a situation is to be quiet and listen — never easy for any of us.

Not Forgetting
Shanah Tovah to all our Jewish friends, and many thanks to all who have supported Buy a Nun a Book Day!

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Slavery, the Slave Trade and Flannery O’Connor

I know I said I wouldn’t write about slavery or the slave trade because I’m aware of its complexities, but this morning two events conspired to set me thinking. The first was the reminder that on this day in 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire over a period of six years. The second was reading that Loyola University in the USA is thinking of re-naming one of its dormitories currently named after Flannery O’Connor.

Slavery and the Black Lives Matter campaign have become intertwined, and I’m not sure it is to the advantage of either. For instance, one of the things I find most difficult about the current debate is the narrowness of its perspective and its almost total focus on Black Slavery in the modern era as the source of racism. No one in their right mind could defend any form of slavery nowadays, nor could anyone deny that there has been an enormous amount of suffering and injustice flowing from slavery that continues to the present; but I’m not sure that the history of Black Slavery explains racism. Ask any Jew, ask any older Irishman, anyone whose skin colour differs from that of the majority of those around them, whether they have encountered the kind of prejudice we could label racist, and the answer will probably be ‘yes’. When I was growing up, being a Catholic wasn’t de bon ton either, unless one belonged to a certain social class. My father refused to join a golf club which excluded Catholics and Jews and I daresay there were other little prejudices he encountered that he didn’t bother to mention.

We cannot ignore the fact that slavery still exists today, here in the UK and other parts of the world, wherever human beings are trafficked, exploited, or denied their essential dignity and freedom. I know I am not alone in thinking that we should be working to end modern slavery, as well as rooting out the prejudice we call ‘racist’, but I think it helps to know a little history when considering the memorials we have inherited from the past. I found quite a useful timeline for the abolition of slavery and serfdom on Wikipedia that some of you may be interested to read. Where I could test it, e.g. on the medieval Church’s attempts to end slavery and the slave trade, it proved accurate. It just isn’t possible to divide the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, especially not those who lived before us and were subject to different ideas and experiences. Which brings me to Flannery O’Connor.

In the rush to topple statues and distance institutions from any taint of association with slavery, we seem to have become a little confused. Cecil Rhodes, as far as I am concerned, was deeply unpleasant and the statue at Oriel is not one of the nation’s finest, so I don’t much care what happens to it, but the Rhodes Scholarships are another matter. I think we have to find a way of living with our past, not trying to do away with it or glorifying it but learning from it. Difficult, but not beyond the wit of men and women to resolve. But now, Flannery O’Connor a racist? She who identified the sufferings of what were then called negroes* with the sufferings of Christ, a racist? I can’t think of anything I’ve read of hers that would justify such a claim, which makes me wonder what the real motivation for the name-change is. She was a witty, spunky woman, with a strong Catholic faith, as well as as superb writer. Is the fact that she lived in the South to be counted against her or taken as evidence of views I certainly did not know she held (enlighten me, please, if you know more than I do).

The problem for me is that when we become a little silly about serious matters, when we overstate the case for a necessary change in attitude or practice, we can weaken our argument. Neither racism nor slavery has any place in civilized society, but perhaps we need to think more deeply about how to counter them. This is one of those areas where the religious and social intersect most clearly. We cannot be indifferent, but we should not be foolish, either.

* not a term we would use today but commonly used by both black and white citizens of the USA at the time she wrote.

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Our Own Worst Enemy?

It may be a hackneyed phrase but, like most of most of its kind, it contains a lot of truth. We are often our own worst enemy, and when Jesus tells us in today’s gospel to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5.43–48), I don’t think we necessarily have to exteriorise the enemy. Most of us are conscious of an inner struggle. We talk about the old Adam (or Eve) asserting itself or ruefully admit to having behaved less charitably than we should have.

When we do exteriorise our enemy, we tend to make unflattering comparisons between them and us or even demonise the other. Anyone can fall under the curse of our anger and become an enemy: those who don’t share our beliefs, those who are richer, more obviously beautiful or talented, even those who are younger or healthier. We can always find a ‘reason’ for regarding others with hostility, and it is SO much easier when we can convince ourselves that they are persecuting us in some way.

It won’t wash, I’m afraid. There will always be some who seem to hate us without cause but I think we should worry much more about the hating we do ourselves. After all, we can’t do much about other people, but we can do something about ourselves. We can resolve to try to be kind, generous, truthful, forgiving. We may fail a thousand times a day (I know I do) but we can try — and that is all God asks of us. The enemy within can be prayed for just as much as the enemy without. The only difference is that we have to be humble enough to acknowledge the existence of the former. Pride, alas, often veils our sight and provides us with excuses for our own bad conduct. St Benedict spoke of the ‘evil zeal of bitterness’ that separates from God and leads to hell (RB 72.1). That is not where any of us should wish to end up, is it?

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Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand

Despite what I said in my previous post, or perhaps because of it, I have been trying to articulate and therefore understand my feelings of unease about some of the matters currently affecting us all, for example COVID-19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, the public arguments about transgenderism and so on. Perhaps you can help me?

I am not talking about having a particular stance, nor am I asking for your opinions on these matters as such. We all have our own views, and this is probably not the best place to debate those I have mentioned. My question has more to do with the dynamics of debate, the way we go from one subject to another and how we are to understand our collective obsessions and the way they affect us.

A little while ago everyone was talking about COVID-19 and giving the world the benefit of their opinion on the nature of the virus and its origins, the effectiveness of lockdown measures and, in the UK at least, the competence or otherwise of the Government’s response to the crisis. As someone said, overnight we all became epidemological experts, and if we had celebrity status, we expected our adoring public to hang on our suitably woke words and whacky medical recommendations.

Next came the brutal death of George Floyd, which ignited a series of riots and protests that is still going on. The way he was treated was wrong, unambiguously wrong, no matter that some want to argue that he had a criminal record as though that somehow ‘justified’ what was done to him. Some of what has followed, however, — further deaths, looting, statue toppling and so on — strikes me as being troubling, though not all equally serious. Death and injury will always be more serious than daubing a wall with graffiti or tumbling a bad statue into a river. Politicians and others have rushed to issue suitably contrite statements and take actions which, to an outsider, look to be panic-driven rather than a considered response to a complex and many-faceted situation.

At the same time, some comments of J.K. Rowling have added further fuel to a fire that has been raging for some time over transgenderism. I hope my transgender friends will allow me to say that casting accusations of transphobia at people doesn’t really meet the case. One can believe that biological sex cannot be changed without disliking or having a prejudice against those who have had gender reassignment or identify as being a different sex from the one they were assumed to be at birth. It is always going to be difficult to talk about deeply held beliefs without causing hurt, but should the fact that it is difficult mean we simply dismiss views we ourselves don’t hold by condemning the person who holds them? If I may use an analogy. My being a Catholic is central to my existence, but that has never stopped my being friends with those who don’t share my beliefs or are even hostile to them.

My problem with what I have called collective obsessions is this. First, we tend to deal with them sequentially. One minute we are flooded with comment on COVID-19; the next it is racism; then transgenderism. But when the shouting dies down, what have we done to effect any change? My second is more personal: how do these matters affect us at a deeper level of consciousness and our Weltanschauung?

We may have clapped and cheered the NHS for ten weeks, but what have we done to limit the spread of COVID-19 or help those whose lives have been most affected by it? There is an emotional response to the work being done by healthcare professionals, but can we go beyond that? We may have denounced racism and slavery, but how aware are we of the slavery that exists in Britain today or that brutalises the lives of people living in other countries? Only this morning I read on the BBC news web site of a little girl of 7 who had been working as a maid in Pakistan and was tortured to death by her ’employers’ (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53008093). If I say that worries me more than any statue, am I to be immediately condemned for not being alert to the discrimination and injustice suffered as a result of present-day racism in this country or the role of historical remembrance in perpetuating racist attitudes? Are they mutually exclusive? And with regard to transgenderism, what effort have we personally made to understand? If one does not condemn a particular view, is one complicit with it? Or is one simply saying, I don’t know enough, haven’t thought enough, to express an opinion — and do I need to have an opinion on everything, anyway?

I suspect my questions don’t really have answers, and I must be prepared for comment from those who don’t want to engage with the questions but merely want a platform to express their views. So be it. I must go on asking, however, because otherwise I know that I shall not be trying to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in many and various ways, not least through events and the perplexity we experience in the face of them. Our collective obsessions may be fleeting, but they can have a huge effect on our lives and the lives of other people. Ultimately, they matter. We must take them seriously.

Audio Version

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A Warning Against Hypocrisy

Yesterday I alluded to the portrait of the abbot as Christian leader in the first part of chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict and the different ways in which four abbots of Cluny exemplified its ideals. This morning I’d like to turn to verses 11 to 15 and their warning against hypocrisy.

Benedict tells us that the abbot must teach more by example than by words, especially when confronted with those of harder heart and duller understanding (people like me, in other words), and then goes on to insist that what he teaches, he must himself observe. So, there can be no two standards of observance in the monastery, one for the abbot and another for the other monks; no two interpretations of lockdown restrictions, one for government ministers and another for the rest of us; no two expectations of moral behaviour, one for men and boys, another for women and girls. Above all, there must be no preaching one thing and doing another.

It’s quite easy to become hypocritical without really meaning to. The origins of the word in Greek theatre provide the clue. We can play a part, pretend. Often our pretending is a sign of our wanting to be better, more interesting than we think we are. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’, whatever that might be. Sometimes, however, we are led to making judgements of others that have more to do with our not wanting them to be as good as they are rather than any just appreciation of their merits or defects. There is so much opinion floating around these days that we are frequently lazy about checking facts. We make assumptions, allow our ignorance to go unchallenged, do harm by not thinking things through.

What St Benedict wrote fifteen hundred years ago to guide the leader of a small community of men seeking to follow Christ is still relevant today. We have to guard against hypocrisy, but in ourselves rather than in others. Something to think about, I suggest, when tempted to call out the sins and shortcomings of others in social media and the like.

Audio version

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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Another Kind of Blindness

When my sight was restored last year, I went around marvelling at everything I had previously taken, not for granted exactly, but as part of the expected order of things, wonderful, but not so wonderful that I would stop and stare for minutes at a time. When a water-drop hanging from the kitchen tap (faucet) can hold one’s gaze, one knows one has never really looked before. Seeing a world in a water-drop, in a familiar indoors setting rather than outside, where the beauty of landscape, waterscape and skyscape attract our eyes, is unexpected, sudden, a moment of vision.

I think those who listened to Jesus speaking about the times they had or had not served him experienced something of the same (cf today’s gospel, Matthew 25. 31-46). Both those who helped and those who didn’t ask much the same question, but with one significant difference. The virtuous ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ They did not recognize or recall when they had served the Lord in others. The selfish ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?’ Unlike the virtuous, they seem to keep an inner tally of their good deeds and are convinced that they have not missed any opportunity. Both are blind: the virtuous to their own generosity; the selfish to their hardness of heart.

Our Lenten pilgrimage will confront us with many harsh truths about ourselves, but I think we can take encouragement from today’s gospel. We won’t know when we are being truly generous; we won’t necessarily know when we are meeting the Lord. But we can be quite sure when we aren’t — when we close our eyes and hearts to those in need. The need in question may not be material. The cup of cold water that revives the flagging spirits, the shared meal that puts fresh hope into the downcast, the warm welcome that transforms stranger into brother or sister: there are many ways of expressing these. It is up to us to search them out. Of one thing we can be sure, we shall never lack for opportunity.

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Time for Another Little Rant?

Is the majority always right? I ask because a friend recently commented that they feel their freedom of thought and expression is being whittled away — here and now, in the U.K., traditionally the home of phlegmatic tolerance. When I questioned whether their thoughts could be determined by others, I was given short shrift. When society creates a climate of opinion regarded as acceptable or right, it is difficult not to be influenced by it. A totalitarian regime such as existed in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany can survive only insofar as it maintains a hold on people’s thinking. The same has often been alleged of Catholicism. At present, said my friend, public broadcasts, online news sites and social media were all tending in one direction on such varied topics as gender identity, equality, and climate change; and it was claimed that the majority of the population supported such views. Therefore, no form of dissent was to be expressed without running the risk of legal challenges and we, as a monastery of nuns, should beware lest we fall foul of the kind of legislation that would inevitably come to pass.

I think my friend may have been on to something. We have had a few vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, and although I have tried to explain the Church’s position as kindly and clearly as I can, some have responded badly and angrily, even threatening to take legal action against us. Thankfully, none has — yet. The Church’s defence of the unborn and her opposition to euthanasia are well-known, but her freedom to act in support of her beliefs is increasingly questioned and sometimes circumscribed by, among others, student unions and pressure groups. How long will it be before there is yet another challenge to her teaching on priestly ordination or marriage? Whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching or not (and let’s be honest, a lot of Catholics themselves dissent from various elements), there are centuries of prayer and reflection as well as lived experience behind what is taught. In other words, Catholics have as much right to their views as anyone else. What we believe has been thought about just as carefully as the beliefs of those who believe otherwise.

Of course, a difficulty comes when people argue that the Church is imposing her views on others. Often the argument can be turned on its head, that others are imposing their views on the Church, but not always. That is where my opening question becomes urgent. Is the majority always right? How do we differentiate between opinions and attitudes that may be fashionable but have no substance to them, and those that are genuinely of the Holy Spirit, a challenge to the Church that we must address? We talk of the Gamaliel principle, but even in my lifetime the intellectual and moral landscape of Britain has changed utterly. In my family, for example, my parents’ generation, by and large, did not divorce and spoke about family members who did in embarrassed tones; among my own generation, it has become almost commonplace, as has the practice of not marrying at all.

Readers of this post will have their own views and I invite you to share them, but please remember, no ad hominem attacks, and no rants — even if, in that last particular, I don’t necessarily follow my own rule.

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Statistics

I love statistics. Like work, I can sit and look at them for hours. I am not clever enough to know how some are calculated, but I do tend to challenge a few (usually the financial ones) and, even more, the conclusions drawn from them. This morning, for example, I was thrilled to read that the number of murders, manslaughters and cases of infanticide in the U.K. fell in 2019 to 650, the lowest level for five years. For a population assessed to be 66.87 million, that may look impressive. But part of me wants to say, add in the number of abortions or people taking their own lives, and the figure rockets up; drill into the number of deaths by sex and age and the terrible toll wreaked on young men in particular becomes clear. There is still a lot of explaining to do before the statistics become helpful in terms of planning or working out how to reduce the number of deaths. It is so easy to forget that behind every statistic is a human face, a suffering face, and just look at the numbers.

Another statistic that took my eye this morning relates to the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo: 310,000 are apparently infected, and 6,000 are said to have died already. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures from the Congo, one wonders whether the actual number of people involved is much higher. The solutions being proposed look inadequate and probably are inadequate, but only when the numbers reach a certain level will there be pressure to act — or so it seems.

What started me on this trail of thought was re-reading a comment I had made nearly seven years ago on an article written by a priest in a well-regarded Catholic journal (I was renewing my credentials with a commenting platform and my comment popped up before me). The article had contained unflattering observations on ‘the traditional orders’ and proposed some radical solutions based almost entirely on numbers. I had taken issue with this, little realising that some of the observations I was making in jest would reappear in Cor Orans as completely serious. Looking back, one of the things I noticed was that no-one appeared to have engaged with what I myself had written about the future of monastic life for women. Instead, many had used the opportunity to say what they thought about the habit, the liturgy and so on. There was no reason anyone should engage with me, of course, but in nearly two hundred comments, I had hoped someone other than myself might have been interested in the future of monastic life for women. Apparently not. The argument went down a different line from the one I had expected and ended up in a morass of contradictory figures and opinions, plus some fascinating insights into what really interests some American Catholics.

One should not conclude too much from that, but it illustrates a problem many of us have with statistics. First, we tend to believe them, if they fit our narrative. Second, we then use them rather crudely, citing them as ‘scientific proof’ of whatever it is we want to argue. (I am not referring to professional statisticians, who will be horrified by the suggestion that they could ever misuse their skill in such a way. I am referring to us amateurs.) Recently, I smiled over a friend’s evident sense of grievance at the amount of money the UK had contributed to the EU budget over the years of our membership. He correctly gave the figure in terms of umpteen millions. Re-worked as a contribution per capita per annum, it came to a pitifully small sum. Both figures were correct, but could be used in different ways to argue a case according to the individual’s preference.

Is there such a thing as a Christian approach to statistics? I don’t think so. But there is a Christian approach to truthfulness and fairness. A frequent theme in the Rule of St Benedict is his concern for fairness. From everyone being treated compassionately, according to need rather than status, to the constant exhortation to avoid favouritism in the monastery, Benedict wants everyone to know that there are no second-rank individuals in community. Nothing will be used to ‘do them down’. I wonder if there is something there for us all to ponder about the assumptions we make and the way in which we try to justify them, using, of course, irreproachably objective things like statistics.

Over to you.

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