Care of the Elderly

The latest report into N.H.S. care of the elderly is pretty damning, but before we all raise our hands in horror/point the finger or whatever other cliché is appropriate to manifest disgust, we should ask how we treat the elderly ourselves.

It is possible to romanticise care of the elderly. The white-haired grandma or grandpa, sitting quietly in a rocking chair and dispensing wisdom and kindness to everyone, is, more often than not, a fiction. We don’t associate such figures with the frailty, querulousness, and smelliness of old age which is the reality. Anyone who has cared for a very old person over a long stretch of time will know the tiredness and guilt that such care often imposes on the carer. It is complicated further when the care must be given in cramped conditions, with lack of understanding or downright hostility to contend with from other members of the family. If we don’t do all that brilliantly at home, should we expect any better in hospital, which is not, after all, meant for long-term care but for getting people better as quickly as possible?

Perhaps the real problem is not so much the failures that have been highlighted in N.H.S. hospitals as the attitudes of society in general to the elderly. Respect nowadays has to be earned. In Benedict’s day, it was accorded automatically. Unless we genuinely respect others and see in them the person God has created and redeemed, I think we all run the danger of seeing the elderly as a nuisance, a drag, not worth bothering about. That is a chilling thought.

If nothing else, I’m not sure I would want to stand before God on Judgement Day and say I found any of his children ‘not worth bothering about’, would you?

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The Twelfth Degree

Humility is very attractive, in other people at any rate. Does it have an effect on the physiognomy or is it something that shows itself only in the moral sphere? It would take several blog posts to unpack what St Benedict has to say this morning (RB 7. 62 to 70), but there are two points I’d like to highlight: the monk (and equally, the nun) must ALWAYS show humility in their outward bearing and their doing so is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Take the outward show first. You might think that nothing would be easier to fake than the appearance of virtue. In a monastery, that’s not so easy. We become extremely sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviour. Any falsity, any lack of enthusiasm for the Divine Office or the task in hand quickly communicates itself. This awareness of the other is one of the great helps to Christian living that membership of a monastic community provides. The fraterna acies, the community battle-rank, is a source of strength and encouragement. I think it explains why Benedict was so keen on community living. Without community, the opportunities to grow in humility are fewer and the need to manifest humility less obvious.

Next, consider the action of the Holy Spirit. We all know how easy it is to take something to oneself: I did such and such; I overcame some fault or other. Benedict will have none of it. We are gradually cleansed of vice and sin by the action of the Holy Spirit. True, he may use our brethren to do the scouring, but it is always the work of God. In older monks and nuns, one often sees a transparency, a goodness that is hard to define but unmistakable when seen. A lifetime of virtuous living, of allowing the Holy Spirit to change us from within, tends to have an effect even on the face. It is the only make-over that costs nothing and yet everything, the only beauty that lasts beyond the grave.

BBC Radio Wales
The podcast of Digitalnun’s  9 October 2011 interview in the ‘All Things Considered’ series may be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/atc.

 

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Religious Language and the Web

You can see how important Benedict thought the right use of speech by looking at today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 60 to 61. The eleventh step of humility is concerned with speaking little but making every word count. It might have been written with Twitter in mind! The things Benedict condemns, either outright or by implication — harshness, mockery, the obscenity and cruelty we discussed yesterday, vapidity  and mere clamour — are temptations at any time but especially when we go online. Our nearest and dearest may long ago have given up listening to us, but online it’s another matter. We can express our opinions, however outrageous, to our heart’s content; but with that freedom comes responsibility, and it’s worth thinking about how we exercise it.

One of the things that has always interested me is how much religious language is used online. Does familiarity with such language in an online context cheapen our understanding of it elsewhere? I refuse to have ‘followers’ on Twitter, for example, because I’m a follower of Christ and of Him alone. But I think some people actually enjoy the messianic overtones and are for ever calculating how many followers they have, as though that conferred validity on what they say. We regularly use words like ‘authority’ in connection with anything from search engines to blogs; we have ‘communities’ for every interest under the sun; even the most blatantly commercial web site will have a ‘mission statement’; and we devoted (note the word) Apple products users are usually described as subscribing to the ‘cult’ of Apple.

Which brings me back to Benedict. He urges that when we do speak, we should do so gently, humbly, seriously, in a few well-chosen words. There is a quietness about his approach that is immediately attractive. I wonder what his voice was like. Judging by his Rule, I imagine he spoke gently, in a low tone of voice for the most part, but with immense authority, the kind that is innate rather than cultivated. Perhaps today we might think about our own voice on the web. Shrill? Frivolous? Or a voice which allows the Word to speak in and through us?

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Examination of Conscience

The words ‘examination of conscience’ had always sent a chill to my heart, but today’s section of the Rule, RB7. 19 to 23, proved a liberation. Benedict quotes Psalm 49.21, ‘My every desire is before you.’ How much easier, and searching, it is just to ask, ‘what have I desired today?’ than to try to go over the events of the day and scrutinize all one’s motives, etc, etc. Self-will has a way of disguising itself, but desire stands plain and naked. And sometimes, one can be surprised to find that one has chosen good when one might have chosen evil. Then one can give thanks for grace received and co-operated with rather than spurned or neglected.

Bad Behaviour
We are trying to reduce the number of Russian porn sites linking to the blog by means of a WordPress plug-in that blocks certain IP addresses. If any legitimate user has difficulty accessing the site, please let me know and we’ll adjust the confirguration.

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Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness

‘Fraternal correction’ is very popular in some corners of the blogosphere, as it is in life. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is a key text, with the emphasis on truth often seeming to obscure the love. For Benedictines, fraternal correction is not an abstraction but a lived reality. It is also, or should be, extremely rare because St Benedict understood how much we all enjoy putting others right and hedged the power to correct round with some important restrictions and qualifications. In essence, only the abbot or those authorized by him should correct. It is assumed that the abbot and spiritual elders will have discernment and act only for the good of the other (whether an individual or the community as a whole). Any abuse of this authority will meet with severe punishment in this life and the next.

Although Benedict was clear-eyed about the need for correction, he was much more interested in encouraging his monks to grow in virtue. His comments on the Lord’s Prayer repay careful thought. He directs that the prayer should be said at the conclusion of every Office ‘because of the thorns of contention that are wont to arise’ in community and reminds the brethren of ‘the covenant they make in those words’. Now what is it that we find in the Lord’s Prayer? Every sentence is about God’s action and holiness save one, where we pledge ourselves to the work of forgiveness: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Interesting, isn’t it, that the most important Christian prayer, the pattern of all prayer, lays upon us this one duty, forgiveness — not correction?

So, are we just to ‘forgive and forget’ and not bother with correction at all? By no means. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it means transforming a source of injury into something life-giving. The body of the Risen Christ still shows the marks of his Passion, but they are no longer death-dealing wounds but a source of life and healing. That is something we all can and must emulate ourselves. Similarly, correction is still necessary: the truth must be upheld, anything contrary to the gospel must be challenged. The question here is: am I the right person to do the correcting? Do I have enough knowledge, is my judgement sure enough, do I have enough love? This last often gets forgotten. In the desire to ensure that truth is served, we sometimes overlook the importance of love. It isn’t easy to correct in the way we should, which is why Benedict links correction with authority. Those with responsibility for others are, or should be, more mindful of the consequences of what they say and do. As Horace once said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again.’ If we are to speak the truth in love we must also take care to speak only such words as build up; and the words which really build up are those of forgiveness and love.

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People as Commodities

I was very much struck by a sentence in a friend’s email yesterday, ‘Some people think communities are commodities and ask questions as if that were the case.’ I think we could widen the terms of reference to include everyone: people as commodities.

How often does one read of some Government scheme which deals with statistics in such a way that the humanity is bled out of them, or read of some personal tragedy being picked over by the media as though those involved had no role other than to gratify our curiosity? Take the media comment on Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. There was a lot of speculation about the future of the company, some neat retrospectives detailing the amazing impact he has had on consumer technology, but not one of the (admittedly few) assessments I read did more than mention his illness as a ‘problem’ for Apple. No doubt it was ‘weak and womanish’ of me to think that half a sentence wishing the chap well, or expressing some hope for whatever life he has left would have been a more decent and humane response to the human story behind the headlines. But, no. There was some intrusive speculation about the nature of his illness (what right have we to know?) but that was all.

I suspect that this commodification of people, of seeing others principally as contributors to or detractors from my wellbeing, plays an important part in the decay of virtue which it is fashionable to decry. Consider me old-fashioned if you like, but doesn’t virtue have something to do with vir, being a man, being human?

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Scepticism

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ asked Nathanael, who is usually identified with today’s saint, Bartholomew. We all have our ‘Nathanael moments’, when we are profoundly doubtful or sceptical, but probably few of us are worthy of the Lord’s subsequent commendation, ‘incapable of deceit.’ It is so often the experience of deceit in ourself or in others that makes us sceptical in the first place.

It is worth thinking about this for a moment. We can’t do anything about other people, but we can take stock of our own attitudes. To try to live honestly, with integrity, may mean a great deal of pain and suffering, but it will also give us that clarity of vision without which we have no choice but to be sceptical, even pessimistic. I know which I would rather choose, don’t you?

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Dealing with Disappointment

Flaky broadband yesterday meant that I wasn’t able to blog. Ironically, an email from BT this morning assured us of ‘the U.K.’s most reliable wireless connection’. The mismatch between aspiration and experience is something we are all familiar with, whether it concerns ourselves or goods and services we rely on.  No doubt Andy Murray is feeling very deflated this morning, but in his case, disappointment will surely lead to a renewal of effort, analysis of where he went wrong/might have done better. He may become an even better player for having lost an important game, but that will be no solace now. He must experience disappointment to the full.

How we deal with disappointment says a lot about us. We give thanks readily enough when things go the way we want, but when they don’t? That is the real test of how far we live in a state of gratitude.

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A Sense of Entitlement

Occasionally, I catch myself saying or doing something that, on further reflection, strikes me as being presumptuous. Presumption isn’t something we talk about very much. Perhaps if we substituted ‘a sense of entitlement’ it would be easier to understand. We live in a society where demanding or asserting one’s rights is seen in positive terms. We are entitled. One unfortunate result of this is to have made us less honest. An accident can lead to litigation, so fault is not acknowledged; a mistake is always an ‘oversight’ for fear of the consequences of saying one made a mess of things. We don’t have to worry too much about kindness or courtesy because we are entitled. (I exaggerate, of course.) We talk about corporate responsibility and individual responsibility but try to wiggle out of it in various ways. In short, our sense of entitlement can make us childish, demanding that everyone else be responsible but ourselves not at all.

I was thinking about this the other day when I looked through a number of emails that Quietnun was struggling with. (She would do almost anything not to disappoint people.) Each writer assumed that his or her request was perfectly reasonable and should be responded to promptly and positively. As it happens, we can’t meet all the demands but that is not my point. What struck me was the writers’ sense of entitlement. You are there, you are nuns, you should do this or that which I have decided you should do. Apply the same sense of entitlement to personal relationships and one can see how quickly all will end in disaster.

Our expectation in the west that we should never be hungry or thirsty and should always have medical care is increasingly under threat from changing economic conditions. Out right to own property and enjoy a lengthy retirement is also being challenged. But it is easy to see these things in impersonal terms and shy away from any sense of our own involvement. Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress that our reliance on rights has produced a culture of death because we have not balanced it with a sense of responsibility. Perhaps we need to do some reassessment at the personal level. We used to consider presumption a sin. I’d say we should also think about our sense of entitlement in similar terms.

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Overseas Aid: How Much is Enough?

The leak of Liam Fox’s letter challenging the Government’s plan to enshrine in law the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid has been brilliantly timed to coincide with Christian Aid Week. Or rather, brilliantly mistimed. On the one hand, we have the Defence Secretary raising legitimate concerns about the effect of such a statutory requirement on the Government’s freedom to allocate spending as it sees fit (something we all need to think about, given the commitment of British forces in Afghanistan, Libya, etc); on the other, we have the example of years of quiet do-goodery (using that word without any pejorative overtones) funded by the generosity of private donors to Christian Aid, an organization I very much admire.

Christian Aid is using the slogan ‘Help people in poverty out of poverty. For good.’ For me, the sting is in that ‘For good.’ You could dismiss it as merely fashionable punctuation. Which likes to do things differently. Or you could take it as an expression of something more important, the motive for and the consequence of giving being the good of others. Poverty is something one can find anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically hungry or without access to education or medical care. Mother Teresa was appalled by the spiritual poverty she saw in the west, but we tend to dismiss that. We don’t need religious people telling us that we lack something. We are generous; we support lots of good causes; we believe in the secular redemption of a secular society.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it can lead to complacency. I can save the world by not eating meat/using wind power/delete as applicable. Complacency is another form of spiritual poverty, the refusal not so much to give as the refusal to share. To give is sometimes to place oneself above another; to share is to place oneself alongside. What troubles me about Dr Fox’s letter is that many will take the argument about Government spending and turn it back on itself, asserting that we cannot afford to give to others because of our own needs as a country. We need organizations like Christian Aid to remind us that overseas aid is not about giving to poorer nations but sharing resources with them. How much is enough? I don’t know, but I believe we need to think about it.

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