Witnessing to What or to Whom?

Today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35-48, tells us what happened after the disclosure at Emmaus. What fascinates me is not the disciples’ obvious failure yet again to recognize Jesus, nor that piece of broiled fish and what it says about Christ’s resurrected body (and believe me, the speculation to which it has given rise over the centuries is immense), but the words at the end:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Perhaps I am being very dim but the kind of witness being posited here is actually a little strange. The disciples had seen Christ suffer and die and rise again and had had the scriptures explained to them, but now he is asking them to witness to a future event: the preaching of forgiveness and repentance in his name. We hear our preachers exhorting us to ‘witness to Christ’ in various ways, but I wonder how often we think of that in terms of a past event: the death and resurrection of Christ as something located in history, made present through liturgical anamnesis, but essentially something to which we look back rather than forward. We are in the business of retelling the story rather than helping to tell it for the first time.

I am probably trembling on the brink of heresy again, but the idea of witnessing to a future proclamation of Christ which must embrace the whole world is quite stunning. It reminds us that Easter is the beginning of the story, not the end. There is still something for us to do, and do it we must, for it has been entrusted to us by Christ himself. As we shall sing at Pentecost, ‘All is made new.’

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Clenched Fist and Wicked Word

Yesterday the whole world was stunned into silence. News of the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed left us without words. Even the enormities being perpetrated in Libya or Ivory Coast seemed small by comparison, as if the loss of human life could ever be a small matter! Yet I noticed that a few sick types were soon active on the internet, expressing glee that so many had been killed. There is something cold and closed about hatred, well summed up in Isaiah’s phrase about clenched fists and wicked words. To me, the clenched fist has never symbolized strength or power but only impotent rage: a hand unable and unwilling to receive. In the same way, the wicked word is deaf to all kindness, its own ugly clamour shutting out all but its own noise.

There is a promise attached to doing away with clenched fists and wicked words. Perhaps realising how vulnerable we all are is the first step in learning compassion. What happened yesterday in Japan reminded us that the world is not under our control, nor can the disaster be expressed in terms of statistics. Every one of those statistics has a name, an identity. As we learn, hour by hour, of the number of people who have been killed or gone missing, we need to remember that. We need to pray for them as individuals, to speak good words instead of bad and to open our hands to give.

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Almsgiving

Fasting has become fashionable, or at least, you will find a lot being written about it in the blogosphere. For us Benedictines, with our fairly rigorous Lenten fast and our regular Friday fast from September to Easter, that is not news. You will be pleased to know I have nothing to add to what has been said already. (Does she ever? Ed.) Similarly, much has been written about prayer which is good and useful, but this year I have noticed very little about the third element of our Lenten discipline, almsgiving.

Notice, first, that I call it a discipline, from the Latin, disciplina, a teaching. We are meant to learn something. Secondly, I use the word alms, from the Greek, eleēmosunē, meaning compassion. That is, we are meant to learn compassion during Lent. That in itself is worth thinking about, so too is the means recommended to us: sharing with others what has been given to us. Put like that, dropping a few coins into the hat of a busker or a couple of notes into a CAFOD envelope can seem horribly inadequate. It may be inadequate, of course, but the chances are that we are made uncomfortable more by the thought of our own imperfection than the inadequacy of our giving. Almsgiving becomes a contest, with the prize going to whoever can give most. You can see how absurd that is. Perhaps we should concentrate less on what we give and more on the manner with which we give. It is generosity of heart that counts, and we cannot fake that with God, no matter how many zeros we add to our gift.

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Equality is not Fairness

Yesterday Eunice and Owen Johns lost their appeal in the High Court. They had wanted to become respite foster carers but a social worker at Derby City Council had expressed concern at the couple’s opinions about homosexuality. In the words of Mr Johns, “We are prepared to love and accept any child. All we were not willing to do was to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing.”

In giving their verdict, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beaton said that while Christians in general might well make good foster parents, people with traditionalist views like Mr and Mrs Johns might well not. (I suppose we should ask the fifteen children the Johns fostered back in the 90s about that, but it could be a bit radical, to look at the evidence.) Anyway, breathtaking though the judges’ assessment of Christianity may be, what is really significant is what followed. The court said that while there was a right not to face discrimination on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation, equality of sexual orientation took precedence. In other words, the law is to be interpreted according to secular values. In part, that seems absolutely right; in part, it seems very dangerous, for it will mean that Christian opposition to euthanasia, for example, will have no value in law. Conscience will count for nothing.

Today we expect to hear that charging lower insurance premiums for women drivers (who cause fewer accidents and are therefore a lower risk than men) is discriminatory and contrary to our laws about sex equality. In the name of equality, therefore, premiums for women will go up, and premiums for men will go down; but the nature of the risk will not change.

Both these cases concern equality, and nothing could demonstrate more clearly that equality is not the same as fairness. I don’t know the Johns, but I have a feeling that there may be questions that are not being addressed or which have not come out in reporting of the case. Respite care is not the same as long-term fostering or adoption. It is a valuable service that comparatively few are able or willing to offer. While one applauds Derby City Council’s determination to find the best possible foster carers, one wonders whether in this instance it has not sacrificed children’s interests to a theoretical position on equality. Similarly, in the case of car insurance premiums, equality in one area must mean arbitrariness in the assessment of risk in others. Certainly, I shall be challenging our insurers to explain how they assess the risk I pose (not many male nuns around, I think).

Sometimes we work hard to achieve equality and forget that fairness is also important. I may not be alone in wondering whether our copious equality legislation isn’t producing a society that is harsher and less fair than it ought to be. What can we as Christians do about it?

Update
Since writing the above I’ve realised that many will think I am criticizing the High Court opinion about the Johns or taking issue over the suitablity of the Johns to be foster parents. I am not. I am using their case to discuss our assumptions about equality. I don’t think the Johns should have taken their case to court in the first place, but that is just my opinion and does not affect what I am trying to say about equality and fairness.

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Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

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Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church

A thoughtful question posed in a comment to yesterday’s post (Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility) is my reason for writing about this subject. I hope that what I say will stimulate reflection and debate, and that the debate will be conducted with sensitivity. The last thing I should wish to do is cause pain to those who have been raped or who have suffered an abortion.

First, a few words about myself. Long ago, before I became a nun, I used to play an active part in Life which, at that time, had a very clear and simple response to abortion. Essentially, we said that people had to have a choice and the only way that a real choice could be offered was by ensuring that anyone who was pregnant had somewhere to live and all the support needed to bring her child safely into the world. Many of the people we tried to help were deeply afraid: of violent partners, hostile parents, their own inadequacy to cope with parenthood. We provided ‘safe houses’ and on-going help.  I can recall only one woman who said she had become pregnant because of rape, but I’m sure there were others, and probably instances of incest also. I state this because one very good question is, ‘how much do you know about the subject?’ and in my case the answer is ‘very little, but possibly slightly more than some others’.

Next, we need to consider what the Catholic Church actually teaches. It starts, not with a negative, but a huge positive: all life is sacred, and in the case of human life, that life begins at conception. This teaching is based on scripture and natural law. The problem with natural law is that not everyone believes there is such a thing, i.e. a self-evident truth which is accessible by reason and is not dependent on religious belief. If you are prepared to give the time, one of the best accounts of what Catholics believe is in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (The Gospel of Life). In section 60 the pope says, ‘From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth…[M]odern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be.’ Read that, and then read what obstetric textbooks say about the beginning of human life. The fact that the viability of life outside the womb is being pushed further and further back seems to me to underline the fact that the answer to the question ‘when does life begin’ is susceptible of only one answer: at conception.

The Catholic Church is entirely consistent in its attitude to the sanctity of life. As Donum Vitae puts it, ‘It is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’ (That’s also a reason why the Church is unhappy with capital punishment: there have been so many instances of innocent lives being taken.) We simply don’t have the right to take innocent human life; and that’s something that allows of no exceptions or we get into the business of valuing one life more than another. A child conceived by rape is still a child and has as much right to life as a child conceived by loving parents; so too does a child who has some physical or mental deformity. Our value as human beings does not depend upon our being perfect according to some arbitrary standard imposed by other human beings.

So, we come to the distressing case of someone, woman or child, who has conceived because of rape. Do we say, ‘The circumstances are so awful and the suffering will be so great that abortion is allowable’? or do we say, ‘This is terrible. We must do all we can to help the woman and her child, and go on helping, because there are two lives here and both are sacred’? The Catholic response is the second. Please note that it has two parts.

It says first of all that rape is a terrible wrong inflicted on another. One of the problems we face in western society is that rape has somehow been trivialised. No one I have ever spoken to who has been raped would agree that rape is trivial. That is a message we need to get across loud and clear, and I’m not convinced that the Church has done a very good job on that. Secondly, it says that there are two lives to be considered and we do not have the right to choose between them. On the whole, the Church has done better with that, but it has not always stressed sufficiently that its teaching makes other demands on the Catholic community. If we are to uphold the Church’s teaching about abortion we must also uphold her teaching about the duty to help and support those in need.

I am sure that this post will seem harsh to many. I have not been in the situation I describe and do not know, from the inside, what it is like, but I still believe that what I have written is true. Sometimes when Catholics talk about abortion they give me the shivers. What comes across is the moral absolute, not the reverence or compassion which should be an integral part of it. There are no easy answers to hard questions like those posed yesterday. We have to live with that and do the best we can. Pray today for all who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy — and dig deep in your pockets and your compassion.

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Saying Sorry is not for Wimps

Many readers of this blog probably sighed with relief when they heard that Britain’s state-owned woodlands are not to be sold off to the private sector; but I wonder what they made of the curious political tit-for-tat that followed the Environment Secretary’s announcement. I thought myself that Caroline Spelman handled a difficult situation with dignity, even graciousness, and was particularly struck by the absence of fudge in the way she began her announcement, ‘I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me before the House today.’ That is not what, sadly, we have become accustomed to hearing from some of our M.P.s. Even more interesting, though, was the way in which she countered an accusation that she had been ‘humiliated’. Whatever her private feelings on the matter, what she said was straight and to the point: ‘I’m sorry . . . One of the things we teach our children to do is say sorry. It is not a humiliation; it is my choice.’

Why do we think that admitting one is wrong and saying sorry is humiliating? Some of the most terrible miscarriages of justice in history, some of the most dreadful wars, owe their origins to someone’s inability to climb down and say sorry. We all know the kind of apology which is no apology at all and merely provides the one ‘apologizing’ with an opportunity to run through all the resentments that led to the explosive situation in the first place. But a genuine apology, made simply and humbly, is utterly disarming. Few have the courage to attempt that, and I have to say, at the risk of annoying my male readers, that women tend to manage it better than men. Perhaps because we cannot physically exert our will on another, perhaps because we are better at reading emotions than many men, we don’t find it necessary to maintain our position in the face of the evidence. We can concede without feeling defeated.

Jesus of Nazareth was one man who knew how to handle an apology. On Fridays our thoughts turn naturally to his Passion and death on the Cross. I am trembling on the edge of heresy when I say this, but I think his death is not only the occasion when man said sorry to God for all the sin committed by humankind, I think it is also the occasion when God said sorry to us and bowed his head before his creature, not because God had ever done us wrong but because the way in which an apology is accepted matters, too. Saying sorry is not for wimps but for the brave of heart and truly loving.

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Why Greed is Wrong

No doubt you are expecting some loyal articulation of what the Catholic Catechism has to say about the right relationship between production and consumption or perhaps a whimsical disquisition on bankers’ bonuses or council pay packets. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I think the worst aspect of greed is not its injustice (some having more than others, and wanting more than their ‘fair share’), nor the violence to which it often gives rise (think Congolese diamonds) or even the suffering inflicted by an empty belly, lack of housing and the absence of medical care or access to education, though heaven knows, these are wrongs that cry aloud for vengeance. No, the problem with fat cats is that they are fat: the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness.

I daresay most of my readers are recoiling in horror at such levity of mind and wondering what the heck I mean. I am not saying that greed is not unjust, of course it is. It is all of the things I have enumerated above. But it is also a distortion of something very precious, the image of God each one of us bears within ourselves. That is why I say that the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness. To allow ourselves to corrupt that image is, when you think about it, the most terrible form of destruction, because it is fundamentally self-destruction. For most of us greed is confined to occasional bouts of excess or selfishness but it can become habitual and so blind us to what we are really doing. Price is not a measure of value, but sometimes what we value isn’t worth the price.

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