Today we begin re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel. I’ve often commented on it before but this morning I was struck by the fact that Benedict assumes goodwill in others. It seems obvious. Day to day, the monastic enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the community members. How else could it function? But when it comes to policy, to decisions about buildings or work or, whisper it gently, liturgy, there is more scope for less disinterested behaviour — I write as the survivor of many a chapter meeting where I had the feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed.
It is the apparently neutral ground, where we talk about one thing but seem to be busy about another, that makes the assumption of goodwill in others sometimes difficult. The bitter devisions in U.S.A. politics, the never-ending instances of incompetence and cronyism nearer home, are all rightly the subject of discussion and condemnation, but I wonder whether the situation would be as grave as it is were we able to assume goodwill in others.
Why are we reluctant to assume such goodwill? Is it that we fear to be thought naif? Or do we say, a little cynically, that we have been caught out before? As an outsider, I have found the presidential election in the U.S.A. and the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats baffling at times, never more so than when considering the behaviour of President Trump himself. An important element seems to be a reluctance to grant that it is possible for people to act in good faith in ways that we ourselves would not. That applies not just to politics but to most other areas of life as well.
Benedict reminds us that if we are to benefit from the wisdom and insights of others, we must be prepared to listen. Good ideas, good advice, can come from the most unlikely quarters. We may not like what we hear at first, so, like the abbot, we must think things over, give the matter time. But we start with that simplest and most difficult of acts: assuming goodwill in others.
Introduction People readily invoke the need for leadership, especially when things are going wrong or they feel the need to apportion blame; authority has a harder time making a case for itself. Leadership implies some sort of involvement in the choice of leader, so there has to be a measure of consent to being led, even if our personal choice fell on another. That is one of the basic principles of democracy: we agree that whoever won the majority of the electors’ votes forms the government. Authority, on the other hand, is conferred rather than chosen and the degree of consent to its working can be minimal. The hereditary monarch and the bishop are alike in this. We can leave the country or the Church, but we cannot alter the scope of the monarch’s or bishop’s authority. It is beyond our power.
The savvy reader may notice the influence of Walter Ullmann in this brief analysis. In my undergraduate days I sat at his feet and have always been fascinated by his ascending and descending themes of law and government. Francis Oakley’s subsequent attack on him has not lessened my enthusiasm for using Ullmann’s theses as an interpretative tool for the events of our own day.
Ullmann’s Ascending and Descending Themes Many of the medieval disputes Ullmann wrote about, and the rise of Fascism in the mid- twentieth century which sent millions to their death, had to do with questions of leadership and authority. Were medieval popes and emperors equal, or did they have distinct but complementary roles; and in any case, who decided the scope of each? Was Hitler’s popular mandate sufficient warrant for the crimes he subsequently committed — or were they not crimes at all, because he held a popular mandate? In Church and State today different models of leadership and authority are operative, but how do they interact? A democratically elected government derives its power and authority from the electorate, so the man or woman at the top is said to be actualising the will of the people — Ullmann’s ascending theme; but what happens when a government ceases to act within the confines of the law? Does Boris Johnson’s side-stepping of Parliament on some issues mean he has forfeited the right to be seen as a legitimate democratic authority and become a dictator?
The extraordinary events in Washington D.C. last week raise serious questions about the nature of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of President, Congress, Senate, and Judiciary. Access to social media and smartphones has transformed not only our awareness of what is happening but also our assessment of it. Each individual, by virtue of his/her choice of what to read or view, can now claim the ability to judge the rights and wrongs of highly complex situations we might never have known about in previous times. If this is a right, a freedom we claim, then it also comes with the responsibility to judge fairly and to take care how and when we exercise our right.
Religious authority, being derived from God, tends to fan out top/down, as in Ullmann’s descending theme, but very few, in the West at least, would say such authority was absolute, certainly not where Christianity is concerned. We recognize the power and (hopefully) respect the person we consider to have authority over us, but we prefer to talk about ‘leadership’ rather than give a blanket allegiance which may oblige us to an obedience we do not relish. The challenges to the authority of the pope and bishops (sometimes coming from the bishops themselves) are startling to those brought up in an older era of automatic deference. (The historian in me is not convinced the deference was ever quite as complete or automatic as some maintain, but let that pass.) There is definitely an air of ‘we the people’ when the discussion of some subjects comes up, and it has to be admitted that the official response of the Vatican or local hierarchy is often lacklustre. The abuse scandal would not be such a festering wound if the bishops, and a succession of popes, including Pope Francis, had been able to confront the reality of abuse honestly, humbly and compassionately from the beginning.
It is the same with questions of participation in the life of the Church. Many simply do not see that some of the provisions of Cor Orans, for instance, are insulting to women leading the monastic life, or that allowing religious brothers to vote at the Synod on the Family while initially refusing any like participation to women religious made nonsense of the argument that ‘rulership’ is the preserve of the priesthood. The latest change to canon law, admitting women to the ministries of acolyte and lector while denying the possibility of admission to the ordained orders of priest and deacon, probably also caused a few historians to raise their eyebrows. I shall discuss this in more detail below.
The point is, this is the situation we have and we must make the best of it. It helps, I think, that we are currently re-reading St Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot, (RB 2), and can trace there a nuanced and ultimately compelling account of what leadership can and should be, and what real authority looks like when it is placed at the service of others rather than used for personal gain. It also helps that we have four very different monastic saints to commemorate this week, and each of them can cast some light on the subject of leadership and authority. I am referring to Aelred (11 January), Benet Biscop (12 January) and Maurus and Placid (15 January). Anthony (17 January) is superseded by Sunday but would add another interesting dynamic if he were included.
Aelred of Rievaulx: the importance of example I haven’t been able to join in the ‘Our Aelred’ webinar organized under the auspices of English Heritage and others, so it may be that the participants will come away with a much keener appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses than is common. Aelred was undoubtedly a very charismatic figure, who inspired love and devotion in others. He could write like an angel, and the themes he was particularly drawn to — love and friendship — are attractive in every age. Under him, Rievaulx became home to a very large and disparate community which numbered some quite rough characters among them. Despite his suffering considerable ill-health, community numbers steadily increased during his lifetime. His beautiful Pastoral Prayer, part of which I myself say daily, is one that anyone with responsibility for others would do well to pray.
After Aelred’s death, cracks began to show. The community was never again quite as flourishing. It is not difficult to comprehend why. Personal magnetism, like grace, is not easily ‘institutionalised’. Initial fervour is rarely sustained indefinitely and Rievaulx was no exception.
I think that Aelred’s life is not easily understood by anyone who has not lived as a Cistercian him/herself. Asceticism and self-renunciation, not self-indulgence, were part of his routine, but they are alien concepts for many of us today. Many have forgotten — if they ever knew — how disciplined his life must have been, or they have speculated about his friendships or his sexuality without recognizing that such evidence as we have is ambiguous. Aelred himself was a monk first and foremost and might have thought our concerns irrelevant to his own purpose as abbot: bringing a community of monks and conversi to holiness. The Rule of St Benedict provided a model, as did the evolving interpretations of the Cistercians themselves, but his abbacy has his own individual stamp upon it and was by no means ‘text-book’ in every respect. His authority was not absolute, either. He was subject to the scrutiny of others and the decisions of General Chapter, but there was also the daily living in community, the accommodations to individual temperaments and circumstances about which St Benedict writes so eloquently. It was his business to rule by example — and what an example he must have set!
My first set of questions So, my first set of questions about leadership and authority is: where there is no example given, can there be leadership; and if there is no leadership, can there be authority? How would that apply to recent events in the UK or the USA?
Benet Biscop: the importance of taking advice Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He is sometimes dismissed as a seventh-century aesthete, but that is to ignore his physical and mental toughness. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, deemed the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible, is a product of the Jarrow scriptorium (it lacks the Book of Baruch, but that we may regard as a minor detail compared with what it does contain).
Contemporaries remarked on Benet’s patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united, and the attainment of unity requires much patient listening to others. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is recognized as someone who appreciated the wisdom of St Benedict. None of this would have been possible had he not had a gift for seeking out and taking advice. That suggests a humility leaders do not always show. He was certainly not wishy-washy. Bede describes him as being ‘full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.’ That kind of enthusiasm demands clear thinking and a readiness to sift the evidence, taking nothing for granted. I suppose a secular equivalent would be a government minister dutifully working through his despatch boxes or attending briefings, or an employer consulting employees about proposed changes to work schedules or company activities. An ecclesiastical equivalent might be consultation of the laity or any group particularly affected by a proposed decision.
My second set of questions So, my second set of questions about leadership and authority is: how far does the one who leads have a duty to inform him/herself before taking a decision? Is authority compromised when it is based on whim or personal preference rather than the greater good of the whole? How relevant is Catholic Social Teaching to the exercise of authority?
Maurus and Placid: the place of obedience I’ve included Maurus and Placid because they show us another side of the leadership/authority question: that of obedience. Many a Benedictine novice has chafed at the presentation of these two saints as exemplary disciples of St Benedict. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is quickly told. Placid, the youthful disciple, runs to the lake to fetch water and falls in. Benedict, aware of what has happened, orders the older Maurus to go and rescue him, so he sets out and walks on the water in obedience to his abbot’s command. There is a little subsequent disagreement about whether it is the obedience of Maurus or the prayers of the abbot that are responsible for saving the boy’s life, but the unhesitating obedience of Maurus is a model of obedience popular in the Church, even today, when we are assured many things have changed for the better. But have they? I’d argue that the role of the laity, women especially, is still ‘problematic’.
The announcement on Monday that women may now be admitted to the ministries of acolyte and lector was greeted by some as a wonderful advance. Women may now do canonically what they have been doing informally for some time: serve at the altar and read at the ambo. The trouble is, the historical memory involved in this view of things is rather truncated. Women were serving at the altar and reading at the ambo even before these were reserved to men as minor orders, and they have been doing so for some years since Vatican II and the greater use of the vernacular. In 1972 Paul VI designated them ministries, thus freeing them from identification with clerical status. Opening them to both men and women as a function of our common baptismal consecration can therefore be seen as an advance while at the same time firmly closing the door on the (re)admission of women to the diaconate — as Pope Francis did last year. But I think many women will see the change as too little too late, because it has to be viewed alongside some recent decisions quite at odds with it. I have already drawn attention to some of the provisions of Cor Orans which make it clear that nuns are not regarded as having the capacity to make decisions for themselves and are to be closely supervised. Perhaps that helps explain why men seem to be keener on this change in canon law than many women. It formalises and limits without necessarily changing anything more than the text of canon 230 § 1. Law is important, of course, but what is lawful does not always lead to action. In this case, it has directive but not compulsive force. What woman is going be an altar server or read at Mass if the priest objects? Isn’t that the rub?
Some object that in a global Church, cultural norms are challenged by the change. I think that is to disregard the fact that many effectively priestless communities have been kept going for years by lay men and women acting as catechists and adult formators. If I may use an analogy, the excitement expressed over the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President elect of the U.S.A. must have been greeted with a sense of déja-vu in India, Pakistan, Liberia, etc. and many other countries in the so-called ‘developing world’ that have already had a woman as Prime Minister or President. My own feeling is that the change in canon law will be used as a pretext to avoid bigger questions about the role of the laity, women especially. It will be interesting to see how the laity have worked to keep faith communities alive and flourishing during this time of pandemic through the way in which many have addressed the need for fellowship and service, not just worship.
My third set of questions So my third set of questions is this: how do leadership and authority in the Church combine, and are they reserved to men only (not necessarily priests: think about those religious brothers I mentioned earlier)? Is the obedience to be given by women fundamentally different from that to be given by men? Does this reflect the fullness of the Incarnation? Have the laity acted as leaders during the pandemic, not just supporting the clergy but acting to keep communities alive? What can we learn from this?
Conclusion I am conscious of not having dealt in detail with the historical arguments for some of the views I hold but that would require a much longer post, and this is already longer than many of my readers will bear. I think it important to stress that, while recognizing the imperfect nature of the present situation in both Church and State, the alternatives do not appeal. I remain, in the non-party-political sense, a liberal and a democrat and a loyal, if sometimes sorely tried — and doubtless, trying —, Catholic. What the future holds, who can say?
By one of those co-incidences that only the Holy Spirit can manage, we celebrate today two saints with the gift of healing — St Winefride and St Martin de Porres — and read chapter 27 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Special Care the Abbot Should Have for the Excommunicated. What could be better for the day of the presidential election in the U.S.A. and for when Austria and Afghanistan are in mourning for yesterday’s loss of life in terrorist attacks.
The real healing that takes place at Holywell is not a physical cure but an inward, spiritual one. I was completely unprepared for the impact the shrine would have on me when I first visited it. The legends surrounding St Winefride may stretch credulity, but no one can be unaffected by the sense of prayer that invests every stone. It is in truth a holy place. In the same way, St Martin de Porres, who was born poor, lived poor, and died poor, is the patron saint of racial harmony. Of mixed race himself, he understood the many and various ways in which race can be used to put people down, disparage them, treat them as ‘other’, less than human. He, too, has much to say to us today. And St Benedict? In chapter 27 he goes to great lengths to express the care the abbot must have for the weak and wayward, for those who cause him sleepless nights and infinite trouble. His is not a tyranny over the strong but service of those in need.
Today, when the people of the U.S.A. are called upon to vote for the man who will be their political leader for the next four years and the governments of Austria and Afghanistan must respond to the violence in their midst, the need for healing, for racial harmony and care of the least able members of society, has never been greater. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has shattered old certainties and exposed what we are truly made of, sometimes to our chagrin, but I think today’s neat conjunction of saints and saint’s reflections can nudge us in a more positive direction. Let us pray it may be so.
Like everyone else, we are praying that President Trump and his wife make a rapid recovery from COVID-19. The way in which some are expressing death-wishes for them is completely unacceptable for any person of goodwill, whatever their religious or political beliefs. That said, the bemusement of many commentators is readily understandable. There seem to be such a lot of contradictions and uncertainties bubbling to the surface. We have never been here before, and no one is really in a position to predict the outcome. There is a great deal of anxiety, both inside and outside the U.S.A. , but I wonder whether the President’s illness and the questions surrounding a possible transfer of power don’t confirm what many have been maintaining for some time: that America’s claim to be ‘leader of the free world’ no longer holds good because there has been a retreat from leadership in many areas. What is true of the U.S.A. is true of other countries and institutions, including the Church. There is a discernible lack of leadership that is very concerning.
I haven’t any magic remedies to propose, but this morning I found myself thinking about Bl. Columba Marmion who, as abbot of Maredsous, exercised a special kind of Benedictine leadership and, incidentally, wrote very powerfully about the monastic vocation. Benedictine leadership isn’t democratic, but it isn’t dictatorial, either. It is concerned for the good of all, prepared to take unpopular decisions, but always ready to listen, take counsel, reflect. It is, or should be, selfless. Today’s secular leaders tend to cultivate their image assiduously and appear to be always ready with a sound-byte. Perhaps that is why we seem to have a leadership vacuum in many areas or, at any rate, leadership which is often hesitant or confused. Perhaps if we could reassure our leaders that they do not have to have an opinion on everything, they might be able to give more time to thinking matters through.
You notice I have moved from the role of leaders to our own role. We can easily forget that leaders are drawn from our ranks and that we have a duty to enable them to be leaders. That means giving encouragement, scrutinizing, calling to account if need be, allowing them to lead but not allowing them to mislead. In many ways, being led is just as difficult as leading. Something to ponder and pray about, I suggest, as we face the future together.
My American friends know that I often find U.S. politics bewildering, especially the way in which party politics and religion seem to intertwine. In this country, I think most priests and consecrated persons are careful to observe the party neutrality the Catechism of the Catholic Church enjoins and are often perplexed by its absence among some in the States. That said, it is important that everyone should think about the moral and socio-economic issues involved in making political choices. The religiously-inlined will always look to their pastors and those they think of as having particular expertise for help in making such choices. But what is the point at which shared reflection and attempts at guidance become electioneering, i.e. urging others to vote for this person rather than that, for one party rather than another? It is a difficult line to tread, especially as I think most Americans are much more ‘definite’ in the expression of opinion than the British are.
As we pray for all those involved in the American presidential election, I suggest we should reserve a special place in our prayers for priests and consecrated persons, that what they say and do may be in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In saying that, I don’t want to open this post up to a political ding-dong. The only way I know of letting the Holy Spirit into a situation is to be quiet and listen — never easy for any of us.
Not Forgetting Shanah Tovah to all our Jewish friends, and many thanks to all who have supported Buy a Nun a Book Day!
For several days I have been trying to avoid, as far as I can, being drawn into any of the arguments that occupy the headlines or excite social media. At one level, it hasn’t been easy. I have had to remind myself many times that party politics are forbidden territory for Catholic clergy and should be for Catholic religious, too. Whether the parties concerned are British, French, American or whatever is irrelevant. We do not endorse one party over another. That does not mean that we do not have opinions or do not discuss matters of political moment, but we do not take a party line. That leaves us free to weigh arguments and to engage with all kinds of people, even those whose opinions we find unsympathetic. Some of our American friends find it odd that we do not endorse whichever party they happen to favour but most respect our party political neutrality. That is especially important in the year when a presidential election is being held.
Neutrality, however, is not necessarily a virtue; and there is always the danger that refusing to engage in a dispute may not only be cowardly but also lead to further misunderstanding. For example, I’ve noticed a great deal of comment, principally from non-Catholics, on the case of Fr Matthew Hood and the consequences of his having been baptized by a deacon using an invalid form of words. It would have been easy to launch into an explanation of classic Catholic sacramental theology but my courage failed as I thought of all the hoo-ha that would result and the amount of time and energy it would require to answer the sincere but not always well-informed objections of those who read what I wrote. So, I have kept quiet and spent my time thinking about how such ambiguities were resolved in former times, the ex opere operato principle and so on and so forth, and whether we always look at the sacraments from the right end of the telescope, so to say. Certainty matters, of course it does, but our experience of lockdown must have made even those living in the West aware that access to the sacraments is also a major challenge for our times.
So, what have I been doing while I’ve been offline? The daily round always absorbs most of my time and energy and there have been a number of ‘extras’ recently, not all of them welcome, if truth be told. I haven’t done all that I hoped to do during the past fortnight, but I’m glad to have completed the series of Rule of St Benedict readings for the Anchor™ Digitalnun podcasts. You can now listen to the reading for the day in English via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, etc. rather than having to go to our web site. I’ve also caught up with some, but by no means all, of my correspondence. At the moment I’m hampered by not being able to sit comfortably or for very long (don’t ask!) but I hope to get our September newsletter out shortly — and there is that wildflower garden to make a start on. Let’s hope my courage won’t fail when it comes to that!
Is it significant that during these nine days of prayer for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit the first three are dedicated to the inter-related but often misunderstood gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel? You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it is. Although I have been re-posting a series on the gifts of the Spirit that I wrote back in 2016 and intend to continue doing so, this morning I was struck by how pertinent they are to a debate going on in the political sphere concerning the behaviour of Dominic Cummings and his recent flouting of the government’s avowed policy regarding lockdown. It may be possible, therefore, to add to what I’ve already written.
Let me say at once I have no interest in arguing the rights or wrongs of Mr Cummings’ conduct here. That is not the point of this post. Instead, I’d like to invite you to reflect on why we begin our novena to the Holy Spirit by asking for these particular gifts. Wisdom is a quality we associate with God himself, of course, and most of us are aware that we are not especially wise; understanding is something most of us seek but don’t always attain; but counsel, oh, how happy we are to give others the benefit of our opinion or advice! With what speed do we rush to inform others of our insights or share our experience! How confidently we assert our predictions for the future! But if we have neither wisdom nor understanding, our counsel is worthless. We must be filled before we can give to others.
I think that is why the Dominic Cummings affair is relevant to what we are doing now. He is a special adviser to Boris Johnson and, as such, bears a great responsibility to ensure that the advice he gives is sound. It is easy for us to criticize politicians and their advisers but if we are not praying for them, and in particular, if we are not praying for them to receive the gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel, we are not exactly helping, are we? We need wise government in both Church and State; we need understanding, and we need good counsel. This morning, may I suggest that we need to ask for these gifts not just for ourselves but for all whose conduct and decisions affect the lives of others — including those we find personally objectionable or unsympathetic?
Much of my childhood and adolescence was spent with the U.K. trying to become a member of what was then called the Common Market and protesting vociferously whenever General de Gaulle said ‘Non’ — which was often. Much of my adulthood has been accompanied by seemingly endless arguments about fisheries, agriculture and ‘Brussels bureaucracy,’ with several attempts by British politicians to renegotiate terms. Today, after a lot of shouting, the U.K. is leaving what we now know as the European Union. Some are waving Union flags; others are dressing in sackcloth and ashes. With my unique talent for annoying everyone, whatever ‘side’ they are on, I give my own personal view of the matter.* Today is the day the U.K. reaffirms its status as a protestant nation, distrustful of what lies across the water; and I reaffirm my catholic and Benedictine identity as a member of something bigger and more important than the modern nation state or even the E.U. itself.
Tonight, at eleven o’clock, therefore, I shall be in the monastery chapel, giving thanks for all the good things our membership of the E.U. has brought; asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted by our choosing to exit the E.U.; and praying for wisdom and right judgement for everyone in the post-Brexit future. You will notice that sentence does not limit itself to consideration of the U.K. or E.U. alone. So much of the political and economic discussion in the last few years has been on the level of ‘what I think is best for us,’ where ‘us’ is narrowly defined. I do not think we have always done that, and I take heart from two things that we may not always do so in the future.
The first is very personal. My father’s war service made him an ardent Europeanist; the breaking-up of the British empire made him an ardent champion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. In the later years of his life he returned to the Catholicism of his forebears on the grounds that it was the only form of Christianity corresponding to his world view. It was, as he once remarked to me, ‘big enough.’ How we regain that larger vision, I do not know; but I am convinced that our interdependence as a world will eventually lead to a re-thinking of our alliances. Either that, or we shall destroy ourselves and the planet on which we live.
The second will strike many as a little recondite, even subversive. The number-plate on our car bears the E.U. symbol of a blue flag with twelve golden stars arranged in a circle. I cannot look at it without thinking of the twelve golden stars arranged in a circlet around the head of Our Lady (cf Revelation 12.1). I am convinced that God has his own way of dealing with things and is particularly good at dealing with our failures and disappointments. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and be prepared to do whatever he asks. When Mary told the servants at Cana to do that, water was turned into wine. Those shedding tears of grief today may find them turned into tears of joy tomorrow. May God bless everyone, whether for or against membership of the E.U., and help us all to work for a better future for the world.
*The community has no particular view. I stress that this is my own view.
I love statistics. Like work, I can sit and look at them for hours. I am not clever enough to know how some are calculated, but I do tend to challenge a few (usually the financial ones) and, even more, the conclusions drawn from them. This morning, for example, I was thrilled to read that the number of murders, manslaughters and cases of infanticide in the U.K. fell in 2019 to 650, the lowest level for five years. For a population assessed to be 66.87 million, that may look impressive. But part of me wants to say, add in the number of abortions or people taking their own lives, and the figure rockets up; drill into the number of deaths by sex and age and the terrible toll wreaked on young men in particular becomes clear. There is still a lot of explaining to do before the statistics become helpful in terms of planning or working out how to reduce the number of deaths. It is so easy to forget that behind every statistic is a human face, a suffering face, and just look at the numbers.
Another statistic that took my eye this morning relates to the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo: 310,000 are apparently infected, and 6,000 are said to have died already. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures from the Congo, one wonders whether the actual number of people involved is much higher. The solutions being proposed look inadequate and probably are inadequate, but only when the numbers reach a certain level will there be pressure to act — or so it seems.
What started me on this trail of thought was re-reading a comment I had made nearly seven years ago on an article written by a priest in a well-regarded Catholic journal (I was renewing my credentials with a commenting platform and my comment popped up before me). The article had contained unflattering observations on ‘the traditional orders’ and proposed some radical solutions based almost entirely on numbers. I had taken issue with this, little realising that some of the observations I was making in jest would reappear in Cor Orans as completely serious. Looking back, one of the things I noticed was that no-one appeared to have engaged with what I myself had written about the future of monastic life for women. Instead, many had used the opportunity to say what they thought about the habit, the liturgy and so on. There was no reason anyone should engage with me, of course, but in nearly two hundred comments, I had hoped someone other than myself might have been interested in the future of monastic life for women. Apparently not. The argument went down a different line from the one I had expected and ended up in a morass of contradictory figures and opinions, plus some fascinating insights into what really interests some American Catholics.
One should not conclude too much from that, but it illustrates a problem many of us have with statistics. First, we tend to believe them, if they fit our narrative. Second, we then use them rather crudely, citing them as ‘scientific proof’ of whatever it is we want to argue. (I am not referring to professional statisticians, who will be horrified by the suggestion that they could ever misuse their skill in such a way. I am referring to us amateurs.) Recently, I smiled over a friend’s evident sense of grievance at the amount of money the UK had contributed to the EU budget over the years of our membership. He correctly gave the figure in terms of umpteen millions. Re-worked as a contribution per capita per annum, it came to a pitifully small sum. Both figures were correct, but could be used in different ways to argue a case according to the individual’s preference.
Is there such a thing as a Christian approach to statistics? I don’t think so. But there is a Christian approach to truthfulness and fairness. A frequent theme in the Rule of St Benedict is his concern for fairness. From everyone being treated compassionately, according to need rather than status, to the constant exhortation to avoid favouritism in the monastery, Benedict wants everyone to know that there are no second-rank individuals in community. Nothing will be used to ‘do them down’. I wonder if there is something there for us all to ponder about the assumptions we make and the way in which we try to justify them, using, of course, irreproachably objective things like statistics.
The morning after a General Election is not generally remarkable for restrained or kindly behaviour. People are tired, emotions are raw, and many say or do things one hopes in more reflective mode they might not. There is quite a lot of ’emoting’ on social media, where the accusations and insults of the disappointed fly around in a profanity-laden whirlwind and the jubilations of the jubilant require a flak-jacket and ear-plugs to avoid. Some are prophesying a coming age of gold; others, doom and gloom. Some are preparing to leave the country; others are convinced that the U.K.’s finest hour is just around the corner. It all depends how we view things.
Today is the memoria of St Lucy and I think we can learn a useful lesson from her. According to the Acts of the Martyrs, she was martyred in Syracuse under Diocletian. Most of what we know about her is really just the conventional stuff of early hagiography. There is enough, however, to have given us some very fine Vesper antiphons, while artists through the centuries have seized on the detail that Lucy’s eyes were gouged out before she was killed. Not surprisingly, therefore, she is patron of the blind and visually impaired — all who do not see clearly. This morning I think she must be working overtime.
Physical blindness or visual impairment can be frightening, as I know from experience, but not to be able to see in a moral or intellectual sense can be more daunting still. We lose touch with reality, are thrown back on the inchoate thoughts and emotions that bubble on and on inside us like the Tennysonian brook. My sense is that something like that is affecting many people in Britain this morning, yet the Advent liturgy provides a valuable corrective. Isaiah 48. 17 is explicit where our trust and confidence should lie:
Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,I lead you in the way that you must go.
The Lord never abandons us, never allows our cloudy vision to hamper his plans for our well-being. However much we may disagree about political leadership, the Lord is our true Leader, the one who will guide us into the way of peace and salvation. If we follow him, all will ultimately be well. Easy to say, I know, but much harder to believe and act on, but that is precisely what we must do: believe and act, which means trusting and, as often as not, silencing the inner clamour that prevents us from doing so. God does not insist or force us. We have to allow our eyes to be opened to the possibilities that grace offers.
This morning let us pray for our newly-elected M.P.s and for ourselves, that we may see clearly and do what is right.