The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

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What Price Integrity?

Yesterday two events occurred that, in their different ways, have set people talking, not always kindly. In Inner Mongolia Antonio Yao Shun was ordained bishop, the first to be recognized simultaneously by both the Vatican and the Chinese State under the controversial Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of Parliament for a record five weeks, sparking fears that he intends to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny between 14 October, when the new session will begin, and 31 October. To some, what is at present a political crisis could become a constitutional crisis. On the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, it is worth reflecting how these two events say something about our understanding of integrity and what we used to refer to as realpolitik.

Let’s take the ‘easy’ one first. China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, forcing Chinese Catholics to go underground until religious practice was tolerated again in the 1980s. By then, however, Catholics faced the choice of either continuing to worship in churches loyal to the pope but subject to state persecution or in churches forming part of the state system, with bishops and priests appointed by the state and disowning papal authority.

Over time, many accommodations were made, with the Provisional Agreement being seen by many as the logical outcome. Some, however, thought the Provisional Agreement a sell-out. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong took to Facebook in January 2018 to say that he thought the pope had betrayed Chinese Catholics. According to those who had suffered under the Communist regime, the sacrifices they had made were now regarded as being of little consequence. It was a poor reward for years of trying to be faithful and living lives of integrity. From the other side, it was the old, old story: how do we best serve the needs of the present, and does that mean that we abandon the positions held in the past, regardless of the human cost?

The prorogation of Parliament is more complicated because, at one level, it is a perfectly legal measure for which there is ample precedent. The problem is its timing, its length, the involvement of the Queen (who has to agree to the Prime Minister’s request but is already attracting hostility in some quarters for doing so) and the suspicions of many as to the government’s motivation and intention. It does not help that Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth is sometimes perceived to be a little flexible, saying one thing one day and another the next. No doubt the ‘will of the people’ will be invoked as a sacred mantra by some while others will urge that a representative democracy requires exhaustive Parliamentary scrutiny of all proposed legislation and agreements; and never the twain shall agree. The problem then is: what is the right and honourable course to follow? Where does personal or institutional integrity come into the mix? Are they one and the same, or can they be at odds with one another?

I think the life and death of St John the Baptist do shed a little light on both these questions, the Church in China and the role of Parliament in Britain.

St John was prepared to pay the price for speaking what he believed to be the truth to Herod and anyone else who would listen. Note I say what he believed to be the truth. I happen to believe that what St John said was true — that it was consistent with everything we know of Jewish and subsequently Christian ideas of God and morality — but we have to allow for the fact that the emphases he gave, and the way in which he spoke, were individual. That partly explains Herod’s fascination with him, despite St John’s condemnation of his behaviour. But it also explains why not everyone was convinced, even though they were persons of goodwill. I think we can apply that to the Vatican’s agreement with the Republic of China and the row over the suspension of Parliament.

How we ourselves view the ordination of Bishop Yao Shun or the prorogation of Parliament will vary according to our knowledge, experience, hopes for the future and our role. What I suggest we need to take on board is that opinion or preference are not necessarily the best guide to acting with integrity. This morning let us pray for Chinese Catholics and the members of the House of Commons who must actually live the integrity this post can merely talk about — and perhaps pay the price for it.

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Ethical Questions

One of the disadvantages of being a nun is that many people think there are a number of questions on which one should not express any opinion. It is acceptable to be against injustice, poverty, war and disease, of course — and to say so quite vigorously to anyone who will listen. Among Catholics it is acceptable to be pro-life, though not all would agree that to be pro-life means being against the death penalty or having reservations about the use of military force in certain situations. But to have opinions about politics or economics or the ethics and purposes of business or science, that is a much more questionable proposition. Why should that be so? I agree, for example, that it would be wrong for me to engage in party politics, but does my being a nun mean I should forget everything I ever learned about the world beyond the cloister or forfeit any right to have an opinion because I’m no longer actively involved in business and am definitely not a scientist? I certainly can’t say I’m no longer involved in politics. I have a vote, and I use it. Similarly, the monastery needs goods and services to function, and that involves us in making decisions about the use of resources and the ethics of the decisions we make. And as readers will know, I take a close interest in some scientific questions because they have a direct bearing on my own health.

How far is a politician’s personal morality to be taken into account when assessing his/her fitness for office? Does it matter if a politician lies or makes promises that cannot be fulfilled? If I say, for example, that I find both Mr Trump’s and Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth somewhat curious, am I overstepping a limit or simply voicing what many others think? Either way, I am expressing an opinion. I ought not to do so lightly or without taking into account the possible consequences, knowing that it would be wrong to harm someone’s reputation. If I argue that making money is not the sole objective of business, am I saying anything very extraordinary? I don’t think so, because I believe that ethical questions are not abstract but affect us all very deeply. In the same way, scientific advances often run ahead of our ability to think about them critically. It is easy to tie ourselves up in knots, especially if we know that we have an imperfect grasp of facts or that the conclusions we come to may be unwelcome.

Take, for example, my question about the ethics and purposes of business. Most people would say that it is wrong to mislead or make false claims while recognizing that a whole industry (advertising) has been built up on the premiss that one can enhance the value of a product by presenting it to the public in the most flattering light. Unfortunately, that may mean ‘massaging the truth’, which is where it becomes a little more complicated. What about a business’s end purpose? Isn’t that to make money for its owners, the shareholders, and those who participate in its activities, the workers? Yes and no. If that were the sole purpose of business, it surely would not matter what a business did. Oughtn’t business in some way to contribute to the common good, and the way in which it does so ought to be consistent with that good? Given the number of companies scrambling to ensure that they have a greener footprint than they did ten years ago, that seems to be a message that has got through. But who decides these things or enables businesses to make ethical decisions?

With that question, I think we come to the heart of the matter. Ethics committees are only as effective as the people who constitute them. In recent years we have encountered a number of difficult cases in the world of science, where individuals have undertaken experiments because they could, not because there was an ethical argument for doing so. Many of us haven’t even begun to think about the kind of questions that the advance of A.I. will pose, but we can’t close our eyes to the fact that we do need to think about them. Whether we are Aristotelians, Kantians, Utilitarians or whatever, both as individuals and as a society, we need to consider how our personal values affect our existence, how we arrive at ethical decisions and the part those decisions play in both our present and future. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from that process — not even annoying nuns like me.

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Nothing New Under the Sun: Silence

In recent months, as my eyesight decreased and I went around in a frustrating blur of light and shade, I became more and more aware of sound. Listening to the Italian Quartet playing Mozart or the clear fluting of a local blackbird could almost reduce me to tears. Almost, but not quite. What did cause a moist eye was hearing hate-filled speech on the radio: cruel voices clamouring for vengeance and calling it ‘justice’ instead; others making rash accusations and false promises, denigrating, stirring up hatred, doing the devil’s work with unholy glee. Being unable to see made it so much worse. There was no opportunity to register facial expressions or those little details that sometimes make the actual words less ugly — the pinched face, the obvious poverty of the surroundings, even the politician’s crumpled suit or ashen countenance. The problem was, how to deal with it all without being drawn into a reactive anger myself.

The conventional, pious answer would no doubt be to pray and do what one can to present an alternative view — the prayerful activism of the committed Christian. I have no problem with that, but it wasn’t the way that suggested itself to me. As a Benedictine, my way was to go deeper and deeper into silence, letting the anger and turmoil ebb away until it was, practically speaking, noiseless and unable to do harm.

To choose silence and stick to it isn’t easy. It means checking one’s own first angry response, the desire to give a smart answer or argue a case one is convinced one will win because, of course, one is right. It means acknowledging one’s own helplessness in the face of something that seems very powerful and hostile. Silence does not immediately soothe. In fact, initially it makes everything much more painful. One feels more, not less. Only with time does one begin to see why silence is important. It allows God into a situation which otherwise is full of human noise and discord. More than that, it allows God to be God in that situation, not our idea of God, which can be misleading and dangerous.

At present there is a lot of violence and anger informing our political discourse, our online activities, even, alas, our social relations. Some will respond with the kind of activism I mentioned above. Others may find more helpful the practice of silence — not the easy, empty silence of the cowardly but the more challenging silence that finds its origin and fulfilment in God.

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Climb Every Mountain?

In the past nine days, ten climbers have died on the crowded slopes of Mount Everest. By and large, the media have treated the personal tragedies each of those deaths represent as a matter for regret and censure for the Nepalese government. The subtext is a chaotic lack of organization, greed and an unpreparedness among some that amounts to folly. That narrative is one that fits the West’s competitive and commercial spirit. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Everest, you will scroll through paragraph after paragraph about expeditions to ‘conquer’ the mountain, routes to the summit and so on, until you come to a few short lines about the religious significance of the mountain for the majority of Nepalese and Tibetans. It is a holy place, a living goddess, not just a challenge, another peak to scale. Perhaps, like me, you will recall photos of the litter left by climbers and note, with some shame, that in April this year attempts began to clear another 10,000 Kg of waste. Is that how we treat the holy places of others?

Listening to today’s second Mass reading (Apocalypse 21. 10-14,22-23), which recounts John’s vision of ‘an enormous high mountain’ and the city of God descending from heaven, ought to make us think. Mountains have always been special places where the divine touches us. Sinai, Tabor, the ‘high places’ of Western Christianity, all have a story to tell that goes beyond rock and clay. 

I wonder whether, in our obsession with winning and proving our physical stamina, we have lost sight of something more important. ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,’ sings the Psalmist. Until we recover that reverence, that sense of the holiness of the planet we inhabit, we shall never quite understand why we must forego some pleasures. Conservation isn’t just about cutting our carbon footprint or reducing our use of plastic — all things we or our governments essentially decide for ourselves — it is about realising that our very humanity obliges us to restraint, to a kind of humility that will never be popular and which most of us prefer to ignore. Hillary famously observed that he climbed Everest because it was there. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to, does it?

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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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Is God to Blame?

As news of the terrible events in Christchurch, New Zealand, spread yesterday we noticed a huge increase in the use of our email prayerline. Many emails were simply requests for prayer for all who had been affected, but a considerable number expressed other concerns. There were those who demanded to know how God could permit such a thing; others who wanted to proclaim that they had given up on God since God had clearly given up on them; and a few who used the opportunity to ridicule our beliefs with a spattering of swear-words and wholly unoriginal gibes.

When people are hurting they need a hug, not an argument; and it is my belief that everyone who wrote in was indeed hurting. Some just didn’t know what to do with their hurt. The questions they asked deserve an answer, however, though I know the answers I’ll give will not be acceptable to everyone.

Why did God not prevent the massacre in Christchurch? That is a perfectly legitimate question but it takes us into territory many find uncomfortable. We can say all we like about God having dignified us with the gift of free will and of his permitting us to use or abuse that freedom as we choose. It doesn’t mean much to someone mourning the death of someone they love. The fact that it happens to be true is difficult to grasp, but we must try because it confirms the truly loving nature of God. He respects us; he doesn’t treat us as mere robots he can control at will. In fact, God isn’t interested in controlling us. He has given us all the guidance we need to live happy and fulfilled lives, but he respects the choices we make. If we choose evil, so be it. I call that one of the hard truths of Christianity: the realisation that God is a God of free people, not slaves. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of that truth. God gave his only Son into our hands, and that is how we treated him, by inflicting death on him.

So, what about those who feel they want to give up on God because they believe he has given up on them? Don’t we all feel like that at times? Didn’t Jesus feel the same on the Cross when he cried out with the psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. We have to be honest about our anger and despair and let God handle the pain we can’t. Because, of course, it is pain that makes us think and feel that way. If we didn’t care, if we were completely indifferent, we wouldn’t bother, would we?

In this blank, bleak universe I am describing, is there anywhere we can find help or comfort? I think there is. The Communion of Saints is not confined to those already in heaven and who we may safely assume are praying for those of us on earth. It includes the Church Militant, our ‘even Chrstians’ as Julian of Norwich loved to describe them. No matter how dark the events that take place in the world, no matter the depths of evil and depravity that deform the human heart, someone, somewhere is praying to let the light of Christ into the situation. Monks and nuns typically devote their lives to this prayer. We do not claim to be experts; we do not claim to achieve anything; but I believe that God does use our efforts in some way because ultimately it is not we who pray but the Holy Spirit who prays in us.

This morning many are feeling drained and unhappy. There are several people on life-support as a result of yesterday’s shootings; others are mourning the sudden loss of someone they love. We pray for them as we pray for all — for a chink of light to come into the darkness, for hope to take the place of despair. Our ideas of God are frequently too little. May we know how great he is, how involved he is even though he does not act as we would want him to act. In short, may we know how much he loves us.

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Murder in Christchurch, New Zealand

News of the murderous attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, began to come in as I was listening to the World Service.* Even now, the details are not clear but what we do know is sickening. The sheer brutality of the attackers with their live-streaming of their actions recalls some of the worst horrors of IS, but at least one of the attackers appears to be an Australian citizen with hard-right views on immigration. No one has a monopoly on hatred. We struggle to find words adequate to the shock and disgust we feel, but there are none that can really express our revulsion or sadness. Feelings of anger and rage bubble to the surface, but what are we to do with them?

As it happens, today’s Mass readings provide us with a kind of commentary on our own reactions. Ezekiel 18. 21–28 reminds us that God does not see or judge as we see and judge. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but desires their conversion. While we thirst for vengeance and call it ‘justice’, God yearns for the sinner’s reconciliation. Similarly, the gospel, Matthew 5.20–26, contains a hard teaching about being reconciled with our brother if he has something against us — not, please note, if we have something against him. In other words, God sets the bar of compassion and forgiveness very high. On the Cross his Son showed how very costly it would prove.

Today many of us will have difficulty reconciling our desire to follow Christ’s lead with our feelings of anger and horror. The trouble is, we have no choice. We must forgive; we must not thirst for vengeance. Part of our problem is that we tend to usurp God’s role when it comes to judging, but forget him entirely when it comes to forgiving. Forgiveness, we must remember, is never a once-for-all act. It is a repeated act, a constant dashing against Christ of every negative thought and feeling. The New Zealand authorities will have to investigate, prosecute and meet out punishment for the vile crime committed in Christchurch, but all of us have the duty to do what we can to show compassion and bring about reconciliation. Just now there are many grieving hearts we cannot comfort save though prayer, but let us make sure that we do that at least.

*A side effect of cancer is that sleep patterns are disturbed. The World Service can be a great help to the insomniac.

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How Much Do We Really Care?

The recent row about Shamima Begum and her baby has highlighted a growing difficulty in our public discourse: the tendency to allow emotion and political opportunism to cloud our thinking. We saw something similar at work in the sad case of Alfie Evans. It is as though we are unable to think through the possible consequences of an action and then make a decision, acknowledging that it is imperfect but that it is also as just and fair as we can make it, taking into account not only the principals but all who are affected by what is decided. In the case of Shamima Begum and her son, the safety of the British public as a whole had to be weighed against her desire to be allowed back into Britain. In the case of little Alfie, the wishes of the parents had to be weighed against differing medical opinions and the resources, both human and technical, of Alder Hey Hospital, with the needs of Alfie himself paramount. Those of us who have never had to make such a decision can only speculate what they must cost those who do. Unfortunately, that does not stop us arguing about what should be done, and sometimes, as I said, we do not bother with any real fact-finding or reflection before we burst into print or its online equivalent, issuing little sound-bytes of opinion that play on people’s emotions rather than serving any useful purpose. How much do we really care if that is how we tackle such morally-complex matters?

Tonight’s vote in the House of Commons will have consequences that last at least a generation, but anyone who has followed the Brexit debate in this country must have doubts about the process as well as its ultimate outcome. Is this truly democracy at work or a mutant variety of it? I myself have been disappointed by the way in which some of our politicians have conducted themselves and have often cringed at assertions/wishes being presented as facts when they are nothing of the sort. We have seen manoeuvering for personal/political advantage, half-truths and an unwillingness to face up to some unpleasant realities that has proved extremely divisive. Whatever is decided tonight is unlikely to end the squabbling or lead to more unity. So, again I ask, do we really care?

It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ we are on. We all have a responsibility to ensure, as far as we are able, that Parliament’s decisions are in the best interests of everyone — which includes the wider world beyond these shores. Some will argue that Britain has no responsibility towards mainland Europe, still less to countries further away, but is that true? We have already seen how what is done in one part of the world affects others, even down to the way in which our rubbish pollutes or our love of cheap fashion exploits. Can we really argue that whatever circle of self-interest we choose to define, be it tribe or nation, that is the limit of our responsibility? Some may, but I can’t; and I would hope anyone reading this would be of the same mind, however much we may differ in our view of other matters.

That leaves us with an almost-dilemma. What can we do about it? I would suggest that when we have thought and prayed and done everything we can by way of action, we are cast back onto prayer again because we know that God can do what we cannot. He sees the whole picture. He writes straight with crooked lines. Trusting God when we are doubtful is hard, but none of us can question either the fact that he cares or the extent to which he is willing to go for our sakes. We have only to look at a crucifix to know that. In the uncertainties of the present, I find that an encouraging as well as challenging thought, don’t you?

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The Four Woes

Reading today’s gospel (Luke 6.17, 20 – 26 ) reminded me how rarely we seem to advert to the less comfortable aspects of Jesus’ teaching — unless, alas, we want to point out the shortcomings of others. The Four Woes are a case in point. We lap up the Beatitudes but hearing that those enjoying wealth, abundance, a largely untroubled existence (laughter) and a good reputation are already having their reward is tough. Most of us living in the West are rich compared with those in the developing world. We have enough to eat; our problems are relatively small; and most of us would admit to an enviable existence for which we should give thanks more often than we grumble. But it is that repeated ‘Alas’ that troubles us. Not enough to make us change, perhaps, but certainly enough to make us feel less secure.

One of the greatest obstacles to holiness is not sin but mediocrity — the feeling that we’re basically all right, Jack, and have no need to overdo things. What if I were to say to you that being satisfied with the status quo, being complacent, is actually a temptation? It may not be sinful in itself but, as St Thomas remarked, there are things which, though not sinful in themselves, partake of the nature of sin and can easily lead to sin.

Today, as we listen to the gospel, it would be good to let it act as an examination of conscience. How far do we accept our shortcomings and moral failures as ‘just the way we are’? How often do we think about the way in which we use the gifts and resources given to us — not just material goods but health, happiness and everything that makes for what we regard as a worthwhile existence? I can assure you I am asking myself these questions this morning.

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