Is Tolerance a Virtue?

One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?

Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?

Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.

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How Much Do We Really Care?

The recent row about Shamima Begum and her baby has highlighted a growing difficulty in our public discourse: the tendency to allow emotion and political opportunism to cloud our thinking. We saw something similar at work in the sad case of Alfie Evans. It is as though we are unable to think through the possible consequences of an action and then make a decision, acknowledging that it is imperfect but that it is also as just and fair as we can make it, taking into account not only the principals but all who are affected by what is decided. In the case of Shamima Begum and her son, the safety of the British public as a whole had to be weighed against her desire to be allowed back into Britain. In the case of little Alfie, the wishes of the parents had to be weighed against differing medical opinions and the resources, both human and technical, of Alder Hey Hospital, with the needs of Alfie himself paramount. Those of us who have never had to make such a decision can only speculate what they must cost those who do. Unfortunately, that does not stop us arguing about what should be done, and sometimes, as I said, we do not bother with any real fact-finding or reflection before we burst into print or its online equivalent, issuing little sound-bytes of opinion that play on people’s emotions rather than serving any useful purpose. How much do we really care if that is how we tackle such morally-complex matters?

Tonight’s vote in the House of Commons will have consequences that last at least a generation, but anyone who has followed the Brexit debate in this country must have doubts about the process as well as its ultimate outcome. Is this truly democracy at work or a mutant variety of it? I myself have been disappointed by the way in which some of our politicians have conducted themselves and have often cringed at assertions/wishes being presented as facts when they are nothing of the sort. We have seen manoeuvering for personal/political advantage, half-truths and an unwillingness to face up to some unpleasant realities that has proved extremely divisive. Whatever is decided tonight is unlikely to end the squabbling or lead to more unity. So, again I ask, do we really care?

It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ we are on. We all have a responsibility to ensure, as far as we are able, that Parliament’s decisions are in the best interests of everyone — which includes the wider world beyond these shores. Some will argue that Britain has no responsibility towards mainland Europe, still less to countries further away, but is that true? We have already seen how what is done in one part of the world affects others, even down to the way in which our rubbish pollutes or our love of cheap fashion exploits. Can we really argue that whatever circle of self-interest we choose to define, be it tribe or nation, that is the limit of our responsibility? Some may, but I can’t; and I would hope anyone reading this would be of the same mind, however much we may differ in our view of other matters.

That leaves us with an almost-dilemma. What can we do about it? I would suggest that when we have thought and prayed and done everything we can by way of action, we are cast back onto prayer again because we know that God can do what we cannot. He sees the whole picture. He writes straight with crooked lines. Trusting God when we are doubtful is hard, but none of us can question either the fact that he cares or the extent to which he is willing to go for our sakes. We have only to look at a crucifix to know that. In the uncertainties of the present, I find that an encouraging as well as challenging thought, don’t you?

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What Price Unity and Justice?

The first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly a trending topic on Twitter right now. There is much more interest in Brexit, the contents of that mysterious letter from North Korea and the Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident. Yet the theme chosen for this year’s reflections, ‘Justice, justice only shall you follow,’ (from Deuteronomy 16. 20), is certainly worth thinking about in a wider context.

For the Church, justice is a matter of right order* —the obedience of faith— and can never be an optional extra, something to which we pay lip-service but blithely ignore in practice. It is willed by God, and the full force of Christ’s prayer for unity must be felt by each and every one of us before it can take effect in our lives. As Christians we must pray and work for unity, which can only be achieved if we are prepared to let go of every personal and institutional obstacle we have put in its way. As I have argued elsewhere, that does not mean ‘lowest common denominator’ unity. Justice, right order, both require the foundation of truth and love, and we do not build well if we try to minimise these. At the same time, we must recognize that we put up barriers only grace can topple.

So, how do Brexit, Kim Yong-chol and the Duke of Edinburgh fit in? Let’s take Brexit first. If the British media are to be believed, our politicians suspect their E.U. counterparts of harbouring all kinds of wicked designs and knavish tricks intended to make life tough for the U.K. The possibility of exiting the E.U. without a deal (significantly, no one wants to call it an agreement) must be maintained, say some, as a bargaining counter. Do we really think the other members of the E.U. are, essentially, duplicitous? If so, on what grounds? Is it just to impute ultimate bad faith to another, because that is surely what one is doing if one does not accept that all parties are trying to attain what is best for everyone.

In the same way, diplomatic manoeuvres have to be viewed with caution, especially when one considers the history between the U.S.A. and North Korea, but speculation about what is intended can sometimes mislead. Justice requires a degree of open-mindedness that can be difficult to maintain. No doubt there will be much reading between the lines and calculation of risk and advantage, but it is in the world’s interest to give peace a chance, surely? And as for the Duke of Edinburgh, it seems everyone has rushed to conclude that he was at fault and should now hang up his car keys, along with every elderly driver in Britain today. Doesn’t justice demand that we wait to hear the police verdict on responsibility? One can’t deny that age does have a bearing on road accidents, but is it only the elderly who are at fault? Don’t the statistics suggest that the young are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents?

You may think I have strayed too far from the theme of Christian unity, but the point is that Christian unity does not exist in a vacuum, anymore than justice does. Both have to be lived; both have practical effects on and in society; and both exact a price. One of the questions we each need to ask ourselves this morning is, what price are we prepared to pay for a just society and for the unity of the Church. The inequalities we encounter every day in a world where some enjoy abundance while others starve cannot be brushed under some mental carpet, nor can the attitudes we adopt be allowed to run on unexamined. We are responsible beings. As we pray for unity and justice, let us remember that. We are responsible beings.

  • see Gregory VII on the meaning of iustitia, passim.
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Hope in Dark Times

Whatever one thinks about Brexit, no one can be indifferent to last night’s events in the House of Commons. Yet again we have been reminded that representative democracy (e.g. Parliament) and direct democracy (e.g. Referenda) do not sit very well together. We are now faced with a situation the majority of us feel we can do nothing to improve and which promises only more uncertainty and, indeed, suffering and loss. The human face of the Brexit question has tended to be obscured by clever, well-nourished men and women animatedly discussing statistics and mechanisms that look very different in the industrial areas of the Midlands/northern England and the fishing/farming communities of Wales and Scotland. Personal ambition, calculations of political advantage and some adroit positioning of company interests all come into play. But it is not a game we are playing. It is difficult not to be downcast and give in to the sense of hopelessness that goes with the grey of a January morning.

So, just two simple thoughts, culled from todays Mass readings, which seem to me peculiarly apposite. The first reading, Hebrews 2.14–18, makes the point that we are enslaved not so much by death as by the fear of death. Fear of what may happen, what might happen, only too often ends up paralysing us. I speak with some conviction on this point. I have known, ever since I was first diagnosed, that my cancer is incurable. My initial prognosis wasn’t very good, but I have been fortunate enough to live my life without spending time wondering when it will end. After all, as I cheerfully informed a friend, I could fall under a ‘bus (though, living where we do, a timber lorry is a more likely modus moriendi). The point is, the what-ifs must not be allowed to cripple the what-ares. We must make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves, and our politicians must be alerted to the fact that many of us are not very happy with the way in which they have conducted themselves and hold them responsible for the mess we are in. This morning the future looks bleak, but with goodwill and hard work, surely something positive can be achieved?

My second point is more explicitly ‘religious’, but you must expect that in a blog written by a nun. In the gospel we read that in the early hours before dawn, Jesus went off to a lonely place and prayed there (cf Mark 1.29-39). That, essentially, is the vocation of a Benedictine: to have in her heart a lonely place where Christ may pray unceasingly to his Father. It is prayer made in the darkest of times but always in union with the one who is a compassionate and trustworthy high priest. As such, it is powerful prayer — not because of us, but because of Him. That is the kind of prayer of which we all stand in need today: the prayer of hope and trust.

N.B. Opinions expressed in this post are the responsibility of the writer and not to be attributed to the community.

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A King! We Want a King!

There is a curious irony in the fact that it is often the most allegedly democratic of peoples that countenance the most absolutist forms of government. No names, no pack-drills, as they say, but I can think of two much in the news of late. It reminds me of the old Israelite cry, ‘Give us a king! We want to be like other nations!’ (cf 1 Samuel 8). God did give Israel a king, but it was not an unmitigated success. What are we to make, then, of today’s ‘O’ antiphon?

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.

The translation is awkward, but I wanted to preserve the obvious scriptural references and, rather than smooth over the difficulties of qui facis utraque unum or even hominem, leave them in plain sight. Sometimes we need to be challenged by the theology of a prayer rather than whittling it down to something we can digest and endorse. However, it was not those phrases that caught my attention this morning so much as the opening invocation of God as Rex Gentium, King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles. It is an ambiguous phrase. On the one hand it proclaims God’s lordship over all; on the other, it claims God for the gentiles, those of us outside the Covenant, the slightly dodgy folk of least account who do not keep the Law. We know that we have been made sharers in the Covenant — Christ is indeed the corner-stone that unites both Jews and Gentiles in the family of God — but it is by way of privilege, a privilege we are apt at times to forget.

It can be hard not to think that the world as we know it is disintegrating. The Church is in disarray over the sex abuse scandals that have destroyed the trust of so many; our politicians seem incapable of putting the interests of others before their own pet plans and projects; the people we have always relied upon seem less dependable than they were. Into this mess comes a tiny, vulnerable baby, born in an obscure corner of the world yet bearing the greatest of titles, who will redeem the world; and we, smudged with sin and endlessly misunderstanding as we are, are privileged to share in the salvation He offers. Our prayer today is not for ourselves alone but for the whole world. The King of the Nations is Lord of all that is.

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Rooted, or Are We?

One hundred days to Brexit, announce the media, with varying degrees of gladness or dismay. Meanwhile, we are preparing to sing O Radix Jesse at Vespers tonight:

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delaying no longer!

Is this another instance of the Church working on completely different lines from the rest of society? Or do we pray in a way that encompasses the demands of Brexit and every other difficulty we face at this time? Consider that line, ‘at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek’. It is awkward in English, but it contains an important truth: God is in control and those who seek him, unlikely as it may seem, will one day find him. God wants to be found; he desires to lead us. Being a Gentile is at first sight a disadvantage, excluded as we assume we are from the Covenant and the privileges of the people of Israel; but the prophecies we have been reading throughout this period of Advent have been reminding us that the Covenant has been opened to all. Amazingly, as St Paul says, we, the wild olive, have been grafted onto the ancient tree. But there is more that is encouraging and surprising in equal measure.

Those who hold power in this world do so for only a time. They can do much good or much harm, but ultimately their power is transitory. Before God the powerful are struck dumb, because God sees with a clarity they do not possess. Only purity of heart, the purity of love and generosity, can enable anyone to see as God sees, and we all fall short of that but especially, perhaps, those whose main focus is their own advantage. It is sobering to remember that, but it is true. We need to see as God sees.

Today’s antiphon is not some form of pious escapism. It is a reminder not to lose heart, not to give up. God wills what is good for us, and no matter how contrary the circumstances in which we find ourselves, no matter how dire we think the state of the country or how irresponsible our politicians, there is hope — but it is a hope that requires more of us than mere wishing. The Root of Jesse stands as an ensign to the peoples. We must rally to his standard, and that means exposing ourselves to danger, to misunderstanding and, as this world sees it, even to failure. The victory is won, but we must still fight. 

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A Virtual Vigil

I was reading over some of my previous posts on St John of the Cross, whose feast is today, in order to avoid repeating what I have already said when I broke off to scan the BBC web site for news of yesterday’s EU summit. Clearly, here in the UK we are plunging further and further into a political mess of our own making. As individuals, I am sure we have all prayed about it, but have we done so as a community? I know that in the monastery we haven’t really, although we have kept the subject in mind often enough.

Tonight, therefore, we shall be holding a virtual Vigil between 7.00 pm and 8.00 pm with the explicit intention of asking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help. Anyone who cares to join us can do so from anywhere, and at any time. We don’t prescribe any particular readings or formal prayers. I imagine we ourselves will just pray quietly and end by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It isn’t much. It’s just a small gesture, but God has a way of taking small gestures and transforming them into something powerful. St John of the Cross was a man of very small stature and insignificant presence, we’re told, but how his love of God blazes across the centuries and what an immense amount he achieved — and all because he prayed, with an earnestness and perseverance that puts most of us — me certainly — to shame.

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Held by the Right Hand of God

For some of us the present turmoil in British politics is disconcerting. We are not fazed by blatent personal ambition or the curious kind of ‘political-speak’ many adopt when they wish to avoid committing themselves to anything, but we are wondering whether the concepts of public service and the common good mean anything any more. Amid all the insults being traded in Parliament and on the internet, it can be hard to discern the voice of mature reflection. At times, the apparent lack of political vision is extremely worrying. Whatever we think about Brexit, the present shambles helps no-one, and any attempt to look into the future is discouraging.

Today’s first Mass reading (Isaiah 41. 13–20), therefore,  could not be more timely. We may feel as helpless as a worm, one whose fate is entirely decided by others, but we’re not. God is holding us by the right hand. That doesn’t mean we can just sit back and make no effort of our own. On the contrary, it is because God is involved in every aspect of our lives that we  can find the courage to go on, however adverse the circumstances in which we  find ourselves. Hope is the great message of Advent, but it is one we have to live in practice, not just theory. That includes being hopeful about the present chaos — not in a silly, ostrich-like refusal to look facts in the face, but in genuine openness to what may come about. It means going on praying, going on searching and working, refusing to give way to the rancour and self-seeking of some or the bitterness and hostility of others. In other words, it means allowing God to lead us,

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Does it Matter What the Churches Do?

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I thought aloud about how we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in the light of the recent withdrawal agreement and on-going Brexit debate, I have been musing on the role of the Churches. There are those who think that the Churches should be entirely excluded from political discussion (though they are often happy for the Churches to pick up the tabs, so to say, for anything the State is reluctant to fund); others expect the Churches to give some kind of moral leadership (though they tend to be selective about what is to be deemed ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t); and others again who think all religion is irrelevant and the Churches especially so (though some seem quite ready to reap the benefits of the Churches’ educational work, for example, as in the case of Professor Alice Roberts). What interests me, however, is the role of the Churches in a post-Brexit world. Some are quietly preparing for a social doomsday, having taken to heart warnings about potential food shortages, unemployment and increased poverty. I think we can take the Churches’ response to such things for granted. Although some may dislike my saying so, Christians always respond generously to appeals for help and take an active part in charitable works that provide food and shelter for the needy. What is of more interest to me is how the Churches will meet the challenge of a Britain severed from the rest of Europe and more isolated internationally than she has been for over forty years.

The brave new world posited by those who think Brexit a good thing tends to look to a golden future some years hence. There is comparatively little acknowledgement that the immediate future could be difficult, though in recent weeks even such ardent Brexiteers as Jacob Rees-Mogg have conceded that the benefits of Brexit may be a long time a-coming. In such circumstance, I suggest that what the Churches do is of critical importance. There may be comparatively few church-goers in Britain today, but the influence of the Churches is still felt; and one of the areas in which that influence is important is in the sense of international connectedness and engagement. As a Catholic, I have always had a vivid sense of belonging to an organization that transcends national boundaries. Sometimes that in itself has led to difficulty, as when directives come from Rome that reflect the situation in Africa or Asia, for example, or a single kind of vernacular is imposed that is far removed from the spoken English of these Islands,. On the whole, however, the international character of Catholicism does us a useful service. We are constantly being reminded of our cross-border connections. Every time Mass is said, the pope of the day is named in the Eucharistic Prayer; papal encyclicals are read from our pulpits and so on and so forth. But is that enough? Will the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — have to work harder to maintain that sense of engagement?

Everyone knows that the advent of the internet and Social Media has transformed how we see and interact with the rest of the world, but many who initially embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm are now becoming tired of its negative aspects. Giving up Social Media, abandoning the internet, disengaging is becoming increasingly popular. We have had our fill of online anger, trolling and bullying; we don’t want ‘news’ we can’t trust; we are suspicious of the way in which we are being manipulated by China, Russia or even our own government. I must confess that I have myself been tempted to disengage, but I am held back by one thought. If we abandon cyberspace to the demons of our culture, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the consequences. If the Churches do not think long and hard about how they can best use the opportunities offered by the internet to create and maintain a sense of connectedness with other peoples, they will have failed in part of their mission — only a part, however. I am not one of those who think the internet is the solution to everything. The bigger challenge facing the Churches in a post-Brexit world will be linked to opposition to isolationism, moral, philosophical and actual. How we shall meet that challenge, I don’t know, but I am convinced that the role of those of us committed to prayer in the monastic tradition will be as important in the twenty-first century as at any time in the past. The paradox contained in that statement, like the tension between being in but not of the world, is one that each of us must work out for ourselves, not just as individuals but as members of a greater whole.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Does it Matter What One Thinks?

I have a hunch that the question posed in the title to this post will elicit different answers from men and women. Broadly speaking, men tend to assume that what they think and say matters. They pride themselves on being reasonable, objective, and well-informed. Many of them are, and I treasure the conversations I have had with such, especially those who have stretched my mind and understanding. I think it fair to say, however, that women are in a less fortunate position. No matter how intelligent or well-educated a woman may be, she will often find her opinion disparaged or disregarded for no other reason that that she is a woman. I have sometimes chuckled a little chuckle when taking part in conversations where some hapless man has kindly explained something to a female friend or colleague I know to be an expert in the subject under discussion. I notice that in most such cases the woman turns the conversation or lapses into silence rather than confronting her interlocutor. Is that weakness or wisdom? Does it matter what one thinks?

I have been thinking about this in the light of what St Benedict has to say about the uses and abuses of speech and the current Brexit debate. Some of the debate has not really been debate at all but a trading of slogans and insults that has done nothing to help any of us to a deeper understanding of the complex issues involved. Likewise, some of the personal attacks on individuals have been 0beyond the pale. Indeed, some of those on Theresa May have been so ugly that I have found myself sympathizing with her — something I never thought I could. But sympathy is not the same as agreement. In a democracy one has both the right and the duty to speak out; but there is a catch. To speak from a position of knowledge is one thing; to speak from a position of ignorance is quite another. Yesterday’s acceptance by the other EU member states of the so-called Brexit deal presents every UK citizen with a challenge that has enormous implications for the future. How we deal with it matters, but do any of us know exactly how we should?

The only constructive suggestion I can make is one most readers will be expecting: to listen carefully to what others say, to weigh their words and exercise restraint in responding, especially when negative emotions are aroused. It is very easy to echo the anger of another without being aware that one is doing so. This morning I noticed quite a lot of anger on Facebook, but I am certain many of the angriest were totally unaware that their words might stir up a corresponding anger in their readers — though more directed at them than the objects they had intended. It is a perennial problem. We feel things deeply and choose words that express our feelings, letting them tumble out of us without any checks or balances. Sometimes, however,  a pause to reflect can be beneficial. Not everything has to be voiced as loudly as possible. Benedict expects his monks to be thoughtful and when they do speak, to do so in a few, well-chosen words (RB 7. 60–61). I think there is something in that for all of us, male or female, for or against Brexit or any other burning topic of the day, don’t you?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail