A Lesson from the Neanderthals

Most, if not all, of us have a dollop of Neanderthal DNA in our make-up. Gradually we are learning that Neanderthals were not the brutal beings we once thought they were, though they must clearly have been bold and handy with a spear to have survived for 200,000 years. They were capable of art, which means they must have been capable of thought and reflection. More tellingly, recent archaeological studies have revealed that they were capable of compassion and care of the sick. Most Neanderthal bones show signs of injury, some quite serious. A recent find indicates that one man with a withered arm and broken leg survived for about ten years after being hurt. Someone must have cared for him. The BBC reporter announcing this called it evidence of compassion. I think I would go further and simply call it ‘love’. The Neanderthals interbred with homo sapiens. Their legacy to us is still being worked out but I’d say that their being compassionate and caring for the weak, of loving those who were physically unable to contribute much to the hard life the Neanderthals lived, is a lesson we could all do with learning, wouldn’t you?


Monday Morning Musings

Regular readers will know that I am no fan of Brexit, but Donald Tusk’s puerile rudeness towards Theresa May has made me much more sympathetic towards her than I ever dreamed I could be. It reminded me of incidents in my brief banking career when one was subject to similar laddishness (though, thankfully, Instagram did not exist then), to say nothing of the tiresome misogyny women still encounter in the Church. Happily, today’s first reading at Mass, Proverbs 3. 27–34, is a reminder that men do not have a monopoly of bad behaviour. We can all be boorish at times. The trouble comes, I would suggest, when we see our rudeness as a positive good, a mark of our independence of mind and spirit, and forget what the effect on others may be.

I have long thought that in Britain we have come to despise courtesy and forgiveness as weakness. The idea that inviting the German President to attend a ceremony at the Cenotaph to mark the end of the First World War is an ‘insult’ to those who fought and died in that war strikes me as but the latest example of such a tendency. I can’t imagine any of my family thinking in that way. The legacy they left their grandchildren (of whom I am one) was the conviction that war is a terrible evil, to be avoided at all costs; but if one is called upon to serve, one must do one’s duty but never make the quarrel personal or one will never be free of the hatred and suspicion that led to war in the first place. I am not sure that I have always managed that (my dealings with whoever is the Enemy of the Moment, especially if encountered just after emerging from the confessional, tend to give the lie) but I acknowledge it as an ideal, above all, a Christian ideal.

Why do I link courtesy and forgiveness? The answer is very simple. The word ‘courtesy’ originally meant manners fit for a royal court but subsequently came to have overtones of something granted as a gift, not by right. We all live by the mercy of God, freely given. We have no ‘right’ to grace or forgiveness, but we have the duty of sharing both; and if we do, we have our place in the court of heaven. Long after Mr Tusk’s little jibe has been forgotten and the memory of the First World War is just one more of those ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’ a courtesy, a kindness, a refusal to bind another with unforgiveness will shine as brightly as the stars.


Sportsmanship and Beyond

No one could accuse me of being ‘sporty’. I can enjoy watching cricket or tennis, but the only games I have taken part in with any real pleasure are croquet, which requires low cunning and dogged persistence, and badminton, which, being fast and furious, usually ended fairly quickly in my defeat. I was, however, brought up in the tradition of being ‘sporting’. With the possible exception of croquet, therefore, (see above), it was impressed upon me at an early age that one must always play fair, accept the umpire’s decision, and applaud one’s victorious opponent as one quit the field. I wonder where some of those old courtesies and rituals have gone. I have no opinion on the Serena Williams v. Naomi Osaka match, for example, other than being horrified by the crowd’s booing of Osaka and Williams’ coldness towards her. The infighting tearing the Conservative party apart has much the same effect on me, as do the Labour party’s endless shiftings on the subject of anti-semitism. It seems our politicians are only interested in securing personal advantage — and don’t mind how they achieve it. The Church is no better and often, in fact, far worse. It all looks rather gloomy. With the decline of sportsmanship has gone a decline in general standards of behaviour. All too often it’s ‘me, me, me’.

There is, however, a ray of light piercing the gloom. The media may concentrate on the unsportsmanlike shenanigans of politicians and celebrities, but we all know lots of ordinary, decent people whose kindness and care for others is manifested daily. Their deeds will never make the headlines, but theirs are the cups of cold water given in Christ’s name or out of sheer human concern that transform life for so many and, goodness, don’t we need them! The Save the Children Fund has estimated that extreme hunger could kill 600,000 children in war zones this year. There have been over a thousand instances of humanitarian aid being blocked by those fighting one another in Syria, Yemen, etc. But I suspect that ordinary, decent people will go on trying to alleviate such situations. They will give aid, brave dangerous areas and refuse to give in. They are not being sporting, they are going far beyond that. If only our politicians and celebrities would take note!


The Poor and Needy

Historically, the feast of St Laurence (or Lawrence) which we celebrate today poses a number of questions. He is thought to have come from Toledo and was one of the seven deacons of Rome, martyred on 10 August 258, just a few days after Pope St Sixtus II and his companions. Within a very short time, celebration of his martyrdom had become much more popular than that of Pope Sixtus, and by the fourth century he was clearly among the Church’s favourite saints. We remember him today chiefly for the antiphons of Vespers of his feast, with their touch of black humour as the saint, lying on the grid-iron, tells his torturers to turn him over, as he is done on this side now, his being named alongside Sixtus in the Roman canon, and for the story that, when asked to produce the treasures of the Church, he brought forward the poor. Perhaps that is why he is so popular: he is the archetypal deacon, concerned with serving the poor, one who sees them not as objects of pity but as individuals who bestow riches on others.

Sometimes in Britain today the language we use about the poor and needy is the language of ‘otherness’. We give help, but the way in which we do so is tinged with awkwardness. The State is failing in its duty, we say, as we note that children are going to school without breakfast or those in employment are having to make use of Food Banks to ensure that their families are fed adequately. We become angry, but the rhetoric of indignation often betrays us. No one likes being done good to; no one likes being thought of as different. Do we actually recognize that while the poor need help, we who try to give it are ourselves the needy?

When Jesus tells his disciples, ‘The poor you have always with you,’ (Matt. 26.11)  I don’t think he was necessarily making a comment about the ineradicable nature of poverty and inequality, although it is frequently interpreted as such. I think it more likely he was emphasizing two modes of presence among us: uniquely in his flesh, and now among those who are open to receive him, who put up no barriers, the poor. We who are rich enough in this world’s gifts can only echo the Beatitudes and try to be poor in spirit. I suspect the really poor may have their own views on that, but it is a starting-point.

Today, when there are so many forms of poverty in the world, let us try to be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and share what we have with others. If it makes us uncomfortable to reflect that they have a right to what we share, well and good. We shall have begin to think as St Laurence thought and seen where true treasure lies, where we may find Christ our Lord.

Community Retreat 2018
The community’s annual retreat begins tonight and ends on the morning of Saturday, 18 August. Please keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.


BBQs in the Graveyard

You may have read a recent report about three adults and seven children holding a BBQ in a West Yorkshire graveyard. Nothing wrong with that, you may think. After all, the early Christians regularly held feasts at the tombs of their dead and, even today, in southern Europe and Latin America it is not uncommon to find people eating and drinking and making merry in cemeteries to mark All Saints/All Souls. However, the couple who spotted the BBQ-ing group were shocked to see that they were using a tombstone for their BBQ. When remonstrated with, one of the men replied in a less than gracious manner. The rest is Social Media history.

Presumably, it was not principally the fact that the BBQ was being held in consecrated ground that gave offence but the use of a particular memorial and the churlish response to the suggestion that doing so was ‘disrespectful’. (There is no hint that the tombstone belonged to a family member of either the BBQ-ers or the complainers.) It is a clear case of two different standards of behaviour clashing. On the one side, there is the ‘I can do what I like’ approach; on the other, the ‘there are limits to what is acceptable’ point of view.

I daresay there are laws that cover what may or may not be done in Anglican churchyards but I doubt whether they explicitly mention BBQs. Part of me has no problem with partying in a graveyard, provided no damage is done and all waste is cleared away; part of me finds the use of a memorial to the dead as nothing more than a convenient table-top for cooking rather repugnant. I wonder what your response would have been, and how you would have dealt with the situation? Me, I suspect I would have taken the coward’s way out, and passed by on the other side, saying nothing but praying for the group and for the deceased.


A Bad Day for Religion?

A couple of reports caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines this morning. One suggested that societies become wealthier as they lose their religion, the other that a majority of people in this country think that religion is the main cause of wars.* Are we back to the Durkheim versus Weber debate, I wondered, as I paused to think what might have led to these conclusions. The idea that we may become materially richer once we drop the restraints of religion strikes me as being self-evident. Most of the religions I can think of, not just Judaism or Christianity, stress honesty, charity towards others and similar checks on the untrammelled pursuit of material gain. No morality works better than the Protestant Work Ethic when it comes to amassing money, surely? So, if you want to be rich, you had better aim at being fundamentally selfish and ditch your religion — but don’t be surprised if you aren’t necessarily happy. I imagine it is possible to be both rich and happy but it cannot be assumed, any more than being poor and happy can. There seems to be something in us as human beings that makes us want to be loved, and to be loved there generally has to be something that others find loveable. A selfish focus on gain for oneself isn’t usually that.

Religion as the cause of war or volence is trickier. Are we talking about religion or the public perception of religion? The rise of Islamist terrorism has tended to make us all nervous of the kind of religious fundamentalism that sees inflicting death on others as a good act. Those of a more historical bent like to remember the religious persecutions of earlier times, while those who have fallen foul of certain kinds of contemporary Christian fundamentalism are quick to point out that there is still much hatred being heaped upon those who do not subscribe to its tenets or conform to its expectations. (And, lest anyone be in any doubt, the fundamentalism I speak of can be found in the Catholic Church as well as in other denominations.) I have a  suspicion that blaming religion for wars and violence may be more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a carefully considered argument. It is socially acceptable to say so, but what is socially acceptable isn’t necessarily true.

That leads me back to my original question: is this a bad day for religion? I’d say it is a bad day for bad religion, certainly. But it would be silly to stop there. It is an opportunity for those of us who claim to be religious to examine how we actually live our religion and resolve to do better. Chesterton once observed that it wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had never been tried at all. That is an uncomfortable reminder that the way in which those of us who are Christians try to live the gospel really matters. We may never be rich in this world’s goods (see above) but to be rich towards God and his children, that is our aim. And the shocking truth is that if we who are Christians really were all that we are called to be, no one would ever think of blaming religion for the wars and violence that scar the face of the earth, for they wouldn’t exist; nor would anyone be calculating how much material wealth might flow from our dropping religion because the world would be a very different place, where the inequalities of the present order would be, quite literally, unthinkable. Utopian? Of course, but anyone who has read Utopia will know what More was criticizing and why. Couldn’t we make this into a good day for religion by our response?

*The BBC reported the first, Theos the second, but I don’t have the links to hand.


A Minor Monastic Feast | Some Major Questions

The feast of St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns is usually marked by some very good historical writing and some very bad jokes. Both have a limited audience. Today I would like to explore some wider questions that this minor monastic feast poses. In calling it minor, I may seem to be tacitly endorsing the idea that Anglo-Saxon nuns are not very important and their liturgical commemoration a matter of mere convention, but that is not what I think. The feast is only minor in the sense that few are aware of it, and even fewer embrace it as anything other than a historial curiosity. In my opinion, Anglo-Saxon nuns are an inspiration to those of us who follow in their footsteps as nuns and to the Church as a whole. If anything, they should be better known, for they challenge us in ways we need to be challenged, turning upside down much of our twenty-first century complacency about our having solved many of the problems of the past.

Of course, few nuns today can claim the kind of royal connections that so dazzled Anglo-Saxon hagiographers, and even if they could, their existence would cut no ice in our supposedly egalitarian society. The insistence on chastity and on penitential usages, such as washing in cold water (e.g. Etheldreda) or wearing a hair shirt (e.g. Edith), is equally out of step with contemporary mores. The idea of joint communities of men and women, where an abbess is in overall charge, tends to attract more approval, at least among those who fancy themselves rather advanced in ecclesiastical matters, but neither Catholics nor Orthodox have shown much enthusiasm for them during the last several centuries. As to engagement in missionary activity or political affairs (e.g. Leoba), that has become a vexed question. Nuns (moniales) are missionary by virtue of their prayer, we are told, but are expected to keep their noses out of politics — as, indeed, were all women and most men without the requisite property qualifications until comparatively recently. The juridical separation of nuns into two classes, moniales and sorores, contemplative and active, has not helped matters, nor has the development of a strict separation into three distinct classes within the Church, clerical, lay and religious.

We have everything neatly arranged nowadays, but we must ask whether we are proclaiming the gospel with real effectiveness or merely perpetuating our cosy institutions. Are we a Church on the move towards the fulfilment of the Kingdom or stuck in the mud? To put it another way, do we look back to the Anglo-Saxons as to a Golden Age when everything was simpler and the Church won hearts and minds in a way she never has since, in Europe at any rate, or do we dismiss the past as irrelevant to the present, or do we hold to a kind of middle way, that sees in the Anglo-Saxons much that we could usefully recover without sacrificing anything of the insights we have gained in the last thousand years?

Anglo-Saxon England was missionary territory, and as in all missionary territory, there was room for a lot of initiative and the involvement of various groups and individuals in the Christianization of the country. Anglo-Saxon nuns played their part by being learned, influential and exercising a moral leadership that paralleled but in no way contradicted the spiritual authority of the clergy. I wonder whether we can see here a model for the laity today. It is, after all, the laity who hold positions of political power, who get things done, whose activities contribute to the wealth of the country and who, most importantly, determine the values by which society lives. There is just one thing lacking. We fail to see modern Britain as the missionary territory it is, and that perhaps is where the nuns can help.

Recently, El Pais published an article about the forthcoming Synod of the Amazon. Many Catholics have become excited over some comments of Pope Francis which suggest that he is open to the idea of ordaining married men, viri probati, to the priesthood to provide for the pastoral care of the region. (We do, in fact, already have married clergy in the Catholic Church, but that is by the way.) What was interesting about the article, however, published as it was in a journal not known for its admiration of the Catholic Church, was its reminder that the pastoral care of the Amazon region has largely been, and still is, the work of nuns and sisters — and it has been quietly successful, just as in the Anglo-Saxon Church. In other words, alongside the hierarchical structures of the Church has been another, looser, in many ways more responsive, kind of structure which has met the needs of the time and place with ability and grace.

Here surely is a challenge for all of us, be we priests, lay people or religious. Just as Anglo-Saxon nuns were loyal to the Church to which they belonged, so must we be, but, like them, we must have the courage to question and to offer our own insights when we can. The Anglo-Saxons’ missionary endeavours sprang from a fervent life of prayer and virtuous living. We cannot opt out of either on the grounds of ‘necessity’ or a misplaced sense of ‘cultural adaptation’, for we cannot draw others to holiness without first seeking to become holy ourselves. Nor can we neglect what we often overlook in their lives: the painstaking study to become genuinely learned, at home with the scriptures, at home with the Lord. May St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns pray for us today and always.


Suffer Little Children

There is something peculiarly inhumane about separating children from their families. Of course, it has always gone on. War and poverty have always divided people while different attitudes to childhood and family have led to some surprising instances of what we would now regard as callous behaviour. In recent years the adoption policies of various agencies, in particular Catholic ‘mother and baby’ homes, have come under scrutiny and been found wanting. I have to admit, however, that the immigration policies currently adopted by the U.S.A. have been troubling me greatly because, as far as I can see, they have been implemented with only one aim in view, viz. the furtherance of President Trump’s one-sided protectionist policies. They may go down well with some sectors of American society but, given that many U.S. citizens identify as Christian, one must ask whether they are just?

Before my readers rush to correct me, may I suggest two things. The first is that both the morality and the legality of splitting up families is questionable. The moral arguments I would advance may not be accepted by all, but the legal arguments should be more generally agreed by those who believe that human rights exist. All the fine rhetoric about the right to family life comes down to a realisation that the family is the basis of human society. Article 16 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’ As far as I know, the U.S.A. has not yet officially repudiated that declaration. Here in the UK, the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into our laws so that Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 guarantees our right to a private and family life. Worth thinking about, surely.

There is, however, a second, purely pragmatic argument I would put forward: that it is not in the best interests of the U.S.A. or any other state to sow the seeds of anger and resentment among the young. It may take a few years before the harvest is reaped, but one can see how much terrorist violence at the present time stems from a burning sense of grievance at past wrongs, real or imagined. Often the history that gives rise to such a sense of grievance is partial or skewed, but that does nothing to change its effect. Can any of us afford to alienate the young people now experiencing the loss of family life through their incarceration in detention centres?

This is a very short post on a difficult and emotive subject, but it may help our thinking and praying to remember that every statistic we read has a human face, a human story behind it. May the Lord enlighten all of us to see ‘Christ lovely in limbs not his’ and act accordingly.


Rights, Duties and the Holy Trinity

This morning, at Vigils, my thoughts wandered. Usually the thunderous anathemas of the Athanasian Creed concentrate my mind, but not today. I thought of St Patrick using the shamrock to teach how ‘God is One and God is Three’ and denouncing the slave trade (he had been a slave himself) and emphasizing the importance of respect for others. In the light of the Republic of Ireland’s decision to repeal their eighth amendment, that seems almost ironic.  It cannot be said too often: if we have rights, we also have duties; and we cannot love and revere God if we do not love and revere other people. For myself, I am convinced that the result of Thursday’s referendum has as much to do with the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in Ireland and the slowness with which Catholicism in general has embraced the idea that women are not just mothers (as men are not just fathers) as anything more sinister. The result, however, is indeed sinister. If the unborn child has no right to life, then the rights of all of us are in question.

So, back to the Trinity. Love must have a beloved, and the love between them must be fruitful; so we have this luminous circle of love within the Trinity that pours itself out in an endless embrace of our humanity. Knowing that, how can we treat the unborn child as a ‘thing’ when he/she is made ‘in the image and likeness of God’? In the years before I became a nun, I was active in the Life movement, trying to provide help and material support to those whose pregnancies were unplanned or unwanted. Most had been abandoned by the men who had made them pregnant; some had been ‘ordered’ to have an abortion by their partner or by their family who regarded the birth of a child as ‘inconvenient’ or a ‘dishonour’. Yet I don’t remember any of the women themselves thinking of their unborn child in that way. Some chose to keep their child; others offered their child for adoption. Whatever their decision, it was clear they cared, that they saw their child as a person, not just a bothersome collection of cells that they had the right to treat how they would. And never once did I hear any of them call their child ‘an embryo’ or ‘a foetus’ (which is just Latin for ‘offspring’, anyway). It was always ‘my baby’.

Call me naive, if you will, but I can’t help thinking that God must be weeping over us, his ‘babies’, today. We get so many things wrong. We think we can cherry-pick our morality, so we condemn abortion, perhaps, but are gung-ho about the death penalty. Or we want to save the environment and are passionate about clearing the oceans of plastic and other waste, but we don’t put much effort into defending unborn or elderly human beings. Or we campaign for disability rights, but then argue that we should eliminate those with Down’s or other conditions that we, from the outside, regard as intolerable.

I suggest we need to do some hard thinking about the way in which our adoration of God must, absolutely must, affect how we regard other people — how we deal with questions of rights and duties, how, in short, we live the mysteries of our faith. We are not the lords of creation, only its stewards. Today’s feast is a reminder that God’s thoughts are, as the psalmist says, ‘not your thoughts’ but ‘as high above your thoughts as the heavens are above the earth’. Or, as St Benedict tells us in the portion of the Rule appointed to be read today, ‘God is always present in our thoughts,’ always searching for that fear of God which is life-giving and life-affirming, a sign of the indwelling Trinity which is the greatest and most beautiful mystery of all. (cf RB 7.10–18)


The Impossible

Those who are not Benedictines often smile when they come across today’s chapter of the Rule, with its arresting title, If a Brother be Commanded to Do Impossible Things (RB 68), or some variant thereof. Those of us under the yoke of the Rule tend to smile with rather more gritty determination than amusement because in many ways this little chapter means there is no escape from anything, ever. Confronted with the impossible, when we have done all that the Rule says, when we have politely and at an approriate moment explained to our superior why we cannot do it, we must ‘obey out of love, trusting in God’s help’ — ex caritate confidens de adiutorio Dei obediat (RB 68.5).

In the past I have tended to write about this chapter in terms of practical obedience, such as suddenly being required to cook for 60 people or asked to sing a difficult piece of chant with only the haziest notion of how it should be phrased, but it goes deeper than that. There are so many things that we find difficult, even impossible. Perhaps the most difficult of all is to forgive a wrong done to ourselves, or, even harder, to accept that we have done wrong to another. I’m sure we can all look back on episodes in our lives that make us ashamed, can still find pockets of unforgiveness that bind ourselves as well as others. It isn’t easy to forgive, especially as we tend to assume that it is something we do, with once-for-all-finality, whereas in reality we have to allow God to forgive in and through us, and it is a process often-repeated rather than a single act.

We can look at the world around us and see much that is in need of healing, but may I suggest that today we start a little nearer home, with ourselves? To forgive is not to be weak; it is to be strong, but with a strength that comes from God. It is to do the impossible.