Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?

When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?

First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.

Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!

Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?

I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?

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Political Humility

The ugly scenes in the Commons yesterday may have left many wondering whether we can sink any lower. The terrible truth is, yes we can. Violent language too easily turns to violent deeds. We have only to think of the murder of Jo Cox to recognize how quickly whipping up hatred can lead to death and destruction. The only word I can find to describe the current situation in the U.K. is ‘chaos,’ and it doesn’t look a very creative chaos to me. It is, literally, shocking — shocking us out of our absurd beliefs about ourselves (decent, moderate people) our democracy (Parliamentary democracy, the best in the world) and our future, whether in or out of the E.U. (jam tomorrow, either way). The attempt to pitch Parliament against the people may succeed; we may end up with a country, or should I say countries, given that the Union itself must be at risk, more divided than ever before.

Where do the Churches stand in all this? Has any of them anything to say that is worth hearing? One may be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church is so involved with her own interior problems that she has scarcely registered what is happening to the nation as a whole. Here in the monastery we pray diligently and try to keep abreast of events, but we would be the first to admit that our engagement with politics is necessarily at one remove since we do not adhere to any party line nor take any part in any party political debate. I think our role must be to encourage others; to remind people of good will that not only does what is said or done matter, but also the way in which it is said or done; that actions have consequences; and that the common good is not ‘what’s best for me’ but something larger and more demanding. The section of the Rule of St Benedict that we read today is very pertinent, especially these words:

We descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder erected is our life in this world. (RB 7.7–8)

Humility may not be an obvious quality to associate with politicians but that is not to say it is unnecessary. Dare we hope that our M.P.s will take note? Will we pray that they do?

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Greta Thunberg and Climate Change

One would have to have been living on another planet not to be aware of Greta Thunberg and her campaign to make us all more aware of climate change and the urgent need to change our behaviour. So far, so good. As Benedictines, we are very conscious of the obligation to treat everything on earth with reverence. As individuals, we are convinced of the reality of climate change (Quietnun, being a scientist by training, is particularly eloquent on the subject) and try to ensure that everything we do as a community is consistent with that. But that does not mean that we endorse any one approach to the matter, or that we are entirely comfortable with the way in which some people argue their case. For instance, the exhortations of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, measured against their jet-setting lifestyle, are hardly compelling. The case of Greta Thunberg is much more complex.

Let me say at once that I myself am a little uneasy. What she says strikes me as being true and necessary, and there is a consistency about her conduct that speaks volumes not only about her but also about her family. I am not so sure that I agree with some of her methods, the school strikes being a particular worry of mine. Two things really trouble me, however. First, there is the question of manipulation. How far is she being used by others? At sixteen, she is having to deal with situations most of us would find difficult even at a much older age; and knowing that she has Asperger’s makes me wonder whether undue pressure is being put on her. Second, the amount of vicious scorn poured on her by older adults is completely indefensible. Sometimes it takes the form of outright attacks which betray the envy and hostility of the perpetrators; sometimes it takes the form of seeming concern for her well-being that fools no-one. What nobody can dispute is that Greta Thunberg has done more in a year to highlight the urgency and potential disaster of climate change issues than the rest of us have in over forty years.

So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with two very real concerns. Whenever a young person challenges the complacency of an older generation, there will be sparks. We all admire the fervour and courage of young people, but we do not always take them seriously or we find reasons to play down their importance. In the case of Greta Thunberg there is a danger that the message will be lost because of hostile reactions to the messenger. There is also the danger that she herself will be damaged by the experience she is currently undergoing. The media have a habit of fêting the latest novelty, be it person or idea, then dropping it equally quickly. Just as I think we have a duty to pray for wisdom and decisive action in the matter of climate change, so I would argue that we have a duty to pray for Greta Thunberg herself. We should be grateful to her; and we should care for her as we would for any other young person — more so, perhaps, because she is being exposed to demands and pressures that go far beyond the ordinary. Whether we agree with her is not the point: she is an exceptional person and our response should be akin to the challenge she presents.

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The Corrosion of Trust

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

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

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

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On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

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What Price Integrity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ethical Questions

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

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

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

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

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Priorities

One of the maddening things about other people is that they often have different priorities from us. Not only that, they have different tastes, different values, different habits. In a monastery, of course, there is the advantage of having the same goal in view, though how we achieve it is frequently a matter of dispute (also known as ‘chapter discussion’). Today in the U.K. we shall learn who is to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and so our next Prime Minister. Not everyone will be delighted with the result, nor will everyone share his priorities or agree with his decisions. With both national and international tensions bubbling over, we may be thinking that the situation in which we find ourselves is dire. Perhaps we need a reminder that prayer isn’t a matter of last resort, something we do when we can’t think of anything else. It is what we do first, a genuine priority. On days like this it is a necessity, pure and simple.

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Measuring Success and Failure

Today,  when Theresa May is widely expected to announce that she is stepping down as Leader of the Conservative Party and setting out a timetable for her resignation as Prime Minister, there will be a renewed rush to assess her time in office by the criteria of success and failure. I often wonder what we mean by that. Is it as simple as saying, she said she would do something but didn’t (failure) or she did something she said she would (success)? What happens when someone does something we were not expecting? Does our attitude change, according to whether what is done or not done corresponds to our own ideas?

I began with the example of Theresa May because it is topical, but this post is not about politics but the subjectivity we bring to our judgements. Long, long ago, before I became a nun, my banking colleagues would often mutter the phrase, ‘Now we must be objective about this’ before proceeding to act on some apparently irrational basis. Though no-one would ever admit it, the decisions they made often turned out to be just as effective as those where the number-crunchers had sweated days and nights trying to provide rational, and hence demonstrable, grounds for doing something. All this is rather unsettling to those who like to believe that their way of thinking and decision-making is unarguable. Take, for example, the invocation of science by those who are not themselves scientists. Quietnun can become quite impassioned about those who think that science ‘proves’ an assertion is ‘right’. Her background in biochemistry means she lives in what might be called an ever-expanding intellectual universe, where she is constantly being encouraged to consider possibilities she had not previously imagined. Success and failure don’t come into it: the search is all in all.

Can we apply any of that to our own lives? Here at the monastery we quite often hear from people who think their lives are a failure because they haven’t managed to do something or other, and it would be foolish and fundamentally dishonest to pretend that the choices we make have no part to play in what happens to us. But many things are beyond our control. We didn’t decide our genetic inheritance, or the time and circumstances of our birth and upbringing. We do the best we can, but it must be the best. I do think, however, that we should be cautious about accepting the values we see in the society in which we live and judging our ‘best’ by them. Success in the West tends to be seen in material terms, even among those who would describe themselves as religious. The more we have, the more successful we are. Owning a big house and driving a fast car is a mark of our success. Even religious communities/clergy can play that game, boasting of the number of vocations they have received or the number of people who attended services. Failure is identified with loss.

As soon as I say that, you can see where I am going. When the Son of God became man, he stripped himself of the glory that was his. He accepted rejection and endured a painful death on the Cross. But he was no failure. Nor are we in God’s eyes if we seek to be true to Him.

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Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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