Religion and Politics

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!

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When Courage Fails

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!

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Wisdom, Understanding and Counsel

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?

Audio version


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Brexit Day 2020

Diego Velazquez : Public Domain

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.

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Statistics

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.

Over to you.

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Seeing Clearly

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.

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Poor Worms and Tiny Mites

I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks  — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.

The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20

As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.

I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.

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A Word for the Weary

Weariness is something we all experience from time to time. For some, it is a more or less chronic condition that goes along with being the parents of small children, illness, or caring for someone who makes huge demands on our energy and patience. Today, in the U.K., I sense a kind of collective weariness about our forthcoming General Election. People are beginning to tire of the debate, the endless accusations, the promises that don’t quite add up, the gimmicks, the shoutiness of social media. For those of us observing Advent, there is also a kind of mid-season weariness to be factored in as well. Can we really be so close to the third Sunday of Advent when we don’t seem, to ourselves at least, to have even begun? Is there a word for the weary we can all take to heart, that will provide balm for our souls and encouragement for what lies ahead?

What a gift today’s Mass readings prove to be! Isaiah 40. 25–31 comforts us with the reassurance that even the young may stumble and tire but the Lord will bear us up as on eagle’s wings. Then in Matthew 11. 28–30 we have those comforting words of Jesus himself, inviting those who labour and are overburdened to come to him and share his yoke. But there is a snag. There always is a snag. Most of us don’t recognize that we are weary or overburdened. Those who go around proclaiming how tired they are or how much they need a holiday are not usually exhausted. They are still able to register what they think and feel. Their judgement is still at work. The truly exhausted are no longer able to judge their own exhaustion but tend to go on, becoming wearier and wearier, often more and more silent or sending out cries for help that go unnoticed by others. In my experience, it is not those who can articulate their distress who tend to have the break-downs but those who can’t. Can anything or anyone reach such depths of weariness?

The conventional answer to that question is that grace can touch and transform anyone at any time. Weariness is no obstacle to God. I agree with that, of course, but I think I would want to add a small nuance. St Benedict is very eloquent about the mutual support community members are to give one another. Much of it is unspoken, rather understated, but it relies on being aware of others and their needs. To give a simple illustration, last night was wet and windy and I admit to shivering a bit. When I went to bed I discovered that someone had put a hot water bottle between my sheets — unasked, just because she noticed. Hot water bottles are a very practical response to a perceived need, but it isn’t only, or even especially, practical needs we can help with. A smile, a prayer, a little patience may be all it takes to give someone else the courage to face another day — and in helping others, we may find that we have been helped, too. Those eagle’s wings take many forms.

General Election 2019
Whenever we have an important decision to make in the monastery, we stop discussing it for twenty-four hours before voting on it in chapter. That gives us time to think and pray without being distracted. Accordingly, apart from posting our prayer intentions, we shall be abandoning social media until tomorrow so that we can reflect more deeply on the choices we and the rest of the country have to make in the Election.

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Advent Fire and the Ballot-Box

fire

The second Sunday of Advent’s Mass readings are anything but cosy. We are confronted with fire — the fire of the prophet Isaiah with his yearning for integrity and justice, and the fire of John the Baptist with his passionate call for repentance and conversion of heart (cf Isaiah 11. 1–10; Matthew 3. 1–12). As the U.K. General Election draws near, it is impossible not to reflect whether/how that fire informs our own decision about voting.

There are those who have told me in no uncertain terms that I should avoid all mention of politics in my blog. If, by that, they mean that I should never voice an opinion with which they disagree, they will be sorely disappointed. I regularly disagree with myself! If, however, they mean that some subjects are not suitable material for reflection, I can only urge them to read the scriptures more thoroughly and consider whether our conduct is meant to be influenced by what we read. For the truth is, the texts put before us today are an unmistakable call to action. They demand a response, just as the person of Jesus Christ demands a response. Are we going to seek justice and integrity or not? Are we going to try to produce good fruit or are we not? When we vote, will we vote in what we think are our own interests or will we heed the warnings of John the Baptist and of the prophet?

This Sunday may be the last day many of us have leisure to think through and pray about the choice we must make on Thursday. For some there is the temptation to opt out of voting, on the grounds that no candidate or party seems to measure up to the situation facing us. While that is understandable it has the effect of placing a heavier burden on those who do vote. What no one can deny is that the outcome of Thursday’s vote is going to have long-lasting consequences.

Fire destroys, but it also cleanses. Perhaps this Sunday we each need to allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away whatever is selfish or self-serving in ourselves that we may play our part in bringing about the age of peace and goodwill we shall sing about at Christmas. The ballot-box, too, can be a vehicle of grace — if we consent to make it so.

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Deciding How To Vote

In just over a fortnight, the people of the U.K. will be heading to the polls to cast their vote in a General Election. I suspect I speak for many when I say that we have had more than enough of promises, gimmicks, half-truths and evasions from party leaders and candidates. How we respond to them matters. There will always be those who vote according to long-cherished party loyalties; others who take a single issue and make it the substance of their evaluation of what is on offer; as well as those who dutifully wade through the party manifestos and try to work out which candidate best represents what they would like to see at Westminster. In the end, we all have to make a decision and accept responsibility for what we decide, bearing in mind that our decision will affect others, not just ourselves.

The social teaching of the Catholic Church is a help in setting the principles by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of the policies being considered, but applying them is rarely easy. I was thinking about this when I recalled the words of St Benedict about the election of an abbot, the consequences of a choice based on self-interest and the role of outsiders in scrutinizing and correcting whatever is amiss (cf RB 64. 3–6). It can be difficult to free ourselves from self-interest. A promise to improve healthcare is immensely attractive to the sick. A promise to improve eduction or do away with fees is very attractive to those in a certain age group. And when all this can apparently be done without raising tax or N.I contributions, it is more attractive still. The trouble is, we all know that it doesn’t work like that. Most of us are going to have to think long and hard, pray and make the most informed decision we can, knowing it won’t be perfect. We are fortunate that the election will take place during Advent, when the Church calls us to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s coming — when we are asked to be more just, more peaceful, more concerned about the welfare of others because we are preparing to welcome our Saviour afresh.

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